PREDICTION: Patriots 28-19
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Dolphins like to break out new Wildcat wrinkles for the Patriots, but are a bit limited without injured RB Ronnie Brown. Rookie QB Pat White will likely be more involved to provide a passing threat out of the formation, while RB Ricky Williams is riding a three-game streak of 100-yard rushing games. The Patriots racked up 432 total yards in the first meeting, a 27-17 home win in Week 9, and QB Tom Brady will again attack rookie CBs Sean Smith and Vontae Davis. The key for the Dolphins will be buckling down in the red zone.
FAST FACTS: Williams, 32, can join Jerome Bettis (32, 2004) as the only players 32 years or older with four consecutive 100-yard rushing games. ... The Patriots are 24-2 in December since 2003.
--RB Fred Taylor still isn't on the practice field, though he was spotted in the locker room Thursday during media availability. With Laurence Maroney running well and Sammy Morris back in the lineup, the Patriots don't need to rush him back just yet.
--RB Sammy Morris might not get as many carries as previously anticipated because of Laurence Maroney's strong play of the past two months. Maroney has scored a touchdown in six consecutive games and has improved with more playing time.
--LB Tully Banta-Cain has been on and off the practice field this week because of a bad shoulder. Losing him for Sunday would be a big blow since he's arguably been the team's most consistent pass-rusher.
--S Bret Lockett is back in the fold on a more consistent basis this week in terms of practice reps, so the groin injury he's suffering from shouldn't keep him out of the lineup Sunday in Miami.
--S Patrick Chung suffered a head injury in New Orleans and has been limited in practice this week. By all accounts, he should suit up this weekend, but it will likely be a game-time decision.
--Rookie WR Brian Hartline, who had two big plays, including his second touchdown catch in last week's loss to the Bills, will be given more opportunities to shine, said offensive coordinator Dan Henning. "Hartline is coming along, we haven't pushed him to the front as much. We probably will here in the near future. ... He hasn't been through all the ropes, once in a while he'll blow this or blow that. But he's got the ability to make explosive plays, and we do need to get him the ball."
--C Jake Grove (ankle, tibia) hasn't practiced all week and once again will be replaced by Joe Berger.
--OLB Jason Taylor, for whom Patriots coach Bill Belichick has predicted a Hall of Fame future, was asked about playing for the Patriots next year if the Dolphins choose not to re-sign him. "We'll reevaluate where we're at at the end of the year, what the teams want to do and take it from there. You never close off any of your options, you don't burn any bridges and you always keep an open mind."
--WR/Returner Ted Ginn Jr. is still struggling as a receiver but was named AFC special-teams player for November for his kick-returning success last month. In five games in November Ginn averaged 31.7 yards on 21 kicks, including two touchdown returns of 100 or more yards each in the 30-25 victory over the Jets on Nov. 1., the first player to ever do so.
--LB Erik Walden, a special-teams stalwart who has missed three straight games with a hamstring injury, has returned to practice and will play Sunday.
--RB Ricky Williams, who is triggering the Wildcat formation since Ronnie Brown went down with a season-ending foot injury a few weeks ago, was defended by offensive coordinator Dan Henning for throwing a costly interception in the first quarter of last week's loss to the Bills. The entire coaching staff was criticized for calling for a pass from Williams -- who hadn't attempted a pass since 2001 -- instead of pounding it in from the 3-yard line. "Ricky completed that ball every time in practice for the last three weeks," Henning said. "One hundred percent. He threw a little higher (in practice). He wasn't being rushed by the linebacker. Credit has to go to Buffalo because they overplayed the formation, gave us one extra guy and (Paul Posluszny) ran through there. So (Williams) wasn't completely comfortable throwing the ball."
Sure, they own sole possession of first place in their division and will most likely guarantee themselves a playoff berth with a win this weekend, but the New England Patriots are far from reaching the pinnacle of football excellence.
Where they stand right now, at least according to the players inside the locker room, is somewhere between mediocre and outstanding.
"Looking at our record, depending on what you define what you were, talking about championship years -- obviously, we're not at that point yet," tight end Ben Watson said.
"If you're talking about last year, we're on track. But each year is different. We still feel like we're a good football team. We feel like our record shows that there's a lot of room for improvement."
The first goal on the team's checklist each year is to win the AFC East. A victory Sunday in Miami will all but wrap up the race, leaving the Dolphins three games out with only four remaining.
The next step is getting to the Super Bowl, which isn't quite as easy. In fact, the road to the promised land might be even harder this year for the Patriots considering they will more than likely have to travel in the playoffs -- an ominous footnote given their 1-4 road record.
"We've played some very good teams, teams that we thought we could've beaten, but they were better than us," Watson said of the team's struggles on the road. "They came out and played better than we did. The only thing you can say is just to execute. There's no magic formula or anything like that. There's no excuse we can give for not winning on the road, except that the teams that we've played have played better than we have."
Sunday is another road game, but the good news is they're a bit more familiar with the landscape in Miami than they were with New Orleans -- the site of last week's embarrassing 38-17 loss to the unbeaten Saints.
"We are familiar with playing Miami, but it's still a road game. That's something that we haven't done very well -- winning on the road," Watson said. "We won the one game in London, but it wasn't the hostile environment like going to someone's home turf. That's another point of emphasis -- that's getting a win on the road, because we're not going to be able to get where we want to get if we don't."
It's no secret that the Dolphins went after center Jake Grove hard once free agency began because they had seen enough tape on the former Oakland Raider when he was able to neutralize some of the mammoth nose tackles in the AFC East, particularly the Jets' Kris Jenkins and New England's Vince Wilfork.
And the tough veteran seemed to be well worth the five-year, $29.5 million investment, including a $14.5 million guarantee. He hasn't disappointed anyone this season in his communication skills on the line or his blocking for the league's third-ranked running attack (156.1 yards per game) while also offering physical protection from the aforementioned nose tackles in defense of his quarterback, Chad Henne.
But that ingredient will probably be missing for the second straight week Sunday when the Dolphins host the division-leading Patriots in a must-win scenario for 5-6 Miami. Grove has missed team drills in practice all week while nursing an ankle injury, although he was running wind sprints during Thursday's practice. It seems likely that once again he will be replaced by journeyman Joe Berger.
"I thought Joe Berger played very well yesterday, I really did," coach Tony Sparano said Monday. "Really pleased with what he did."
The Patriots are ranked 16th in run defense (109.7 yards per game), and the last time the two teams met, coach Bill Belichick moved Wilfork outside on several plays. The Dolphins gained 133 rushing yards in the 27-14 loss but 45 of those yards came from backup rookie quarterback Pat White on a variety of college-style option plays. Ronnie Brown only had 48 yards on 15 carries, while Ricky Williams was held to 33 yards on seven carries. Brown is out for the year but Williams is on a roll, gaining 100 or more yards in three straight games.
"Vince is a guy that's played all the way across the line, so he's a pretty versatile player. He's an easy guy if we want to move somebody around, he's an easy guy to move," Belichick said this week.
Before the Dolphins signed Grove they certainly had to be concerned about his durability, since he's missed 21 games since 2005.
Wilfork, a former Miami Hurricane, has always saved his best for the Dolphins. In 11 games against Miami he's had 62 tackles, including two sacks.