FOXBOROUGH, Mass. (Dec. 28, 2005) -- The New England Patriots are right where the rest of the AFC was hoping they wouldn't be at the end of December -- playing their best ball of the season heading into the playoffs.
The two-time defending Super Bowl champions will look to close the regular season with a fifth consecutive victory when they meet the also-surging Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium.
New England has won six of seven and already has clinched its third consecutive AFC East title. A victory on Jan. 1 coupled with a Cincinnati loss at Kansas City would give the Patriots the No. 3 seed in the AFC.
That position seemed out of reach following a 4-4 start in which the team was beset by injuries and inconsistency, particularly on defense.
"I knew we could play better than we did early in the season," coach Bill Belichick said. "We were last in the league in defense; it doesn't take much to improve from that. We just work hard, try to improve on things we aren't doing well.
"The players have done a good job on that. They are very diligent -- extra practice, extra film study and extra meetings. I think that hard work has paid off with some better results."
The now-24th-ranked defense remains vulnerable, especially a secondary that has lost starters Rodney Harrison (knee), Tyrone Poole (ankle) and Duane Starks (shoulder, thigh) to season-ending injuries.
But the defense has been a key factor in the team's four-game winning streak, allowing only 31 points in that span.
Most of those points came on Dec. 26, but New England mostly dominated the New York Jets in a 31-21 victory. The Patriots outgained the Jets 321-171 and held the ball for 43:21.
New England also rushed for 151 yards and two touchdowns on a season-high 50 carries, a total that could help silence critics who have accused Belichick of often being too quick to abandon the running game this season.
Quarterback Tom Brady fought a stiff, swirling wind and completed 18 of 29 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns to linebacker-tight end Mike Vrabel. The yardage total pushed Brady past 4,000 for the season, joining Drew Bledsoe (1994) as the only quarterbacks in franchise history to reach that mark.
Brady, who statistically is enjoying the best season of his six-year career, enters the finale with a string of 151 consecutive pass attempts at home without an interception.
Perhaps the only negative aspect in Week 16 for New England was the leg injury suffered by linebacker Tedy Bruschi, who left in the first quarter and did not return. Bruschi is listed as questionable for this game.
Despite being eliminated from postseason play last week, Miami is the only AFC team hotter than New England.
The Dolphins have won five in a row for the first time since 1999 and are looking for their first six-game winning streak since 1992.
Since their last loss, 22-0 at Cleveland on Nov. 20, the Dolphins have averaged 25.6 points and 349.4 yards, compared to 16.2 and 307.3 during their 3-7 start.
"I'm just proud of the guys, because when we were 3-7, we could have shut it down," linebacker Zach Thomas said. "And guys kept fighting."
Thomas again leads the team in tackles and has contributed two sacks this season. Miami's total of 48 sacks, including 22 in the past five games, is tops in the NFL and one shy of tying the franchise mark set in 1983.
Four of those sacks came Dec. 24 in a 24-10 victory against the Tennessee Titans, but it was running back Ricky Williams who provided most of the highlights.
With teammate Ronnie Brown inactive due to knee and ankle injuries, Williams had 26 carries for 172 yards and a touchdown, posting his highest yardage total since getting 185 at New England on Dec. 29, 2002.
"To watch this team grow and be part of it has been special," Williams said. "We've made strides, and we can be confident that we can go into next season strong."
Whether Williams will be a part of the Dolphins' plans next season is questionable. He is under contract through 2007, but Brown has had a promising rookie season and the team might consider dealing Williams during the offseason.
Quarterback Gus Frerotte and cornerback Sam Madison also could be among those playing their final game for Miami.
"Every year you hear players at this time of year saying, 'This may be the last time we're together. Let's enjoy this one and have a good one,' " defensive tackle Vonnie Holliday said. "We're trying to put six wins in a row together, so we're trying to go out with a bang.
"It's just that time of year. Guys understand the business."
STANDINGS: Dolphins -- 2nd place, AFC East. Patriots -- 1st place, AFC East.
DOLPHINS LEADERS: Offense -- Frerotte, 2,757 passing yards and 17 passing TDs; Brown, 886 rushing yards; Williams, 5 rushing TDs; Chris Chambers, 77 receptions, 1,043 receiving yards and 11 receiving TDs. Defense -- Jason Taylor, 12 sacks; Lance Schulters and Travares Tillman, 3 INTs.
PATRIOTS LEADERS: Offense -- Brady, 4,073 passing yards and 25 passing TDs; Corey Dillon, 733 rushing yards and 12 rushing TDs; Deion Branch, 76 receptions, 979 receiving yards and 4 receiving TDs. Defense -- Rosevelt Colvin, 6½ sacks; Ellis Hobbs and Asante Samuel, 3 INTs.
DOLPHINS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 116.7 yards per game (13th in NFL); Passing Offense -- 204.7 ypg (18th); Total Offense -- 321.3 ypg (15th). Rushing Defense -- 114.4 ypg (19th); Passing Defense -- 206.9 ypg (19th); Total Defense -- 321.3 ypg (20th).
PATRIOTS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense -- 97.1 yards per game (20th); Passing Offense -- 261.1 ypg (2nd); Total Offense -- 358.2 ypg (7th). Rushing Defense -- 95.5 ypg (4th); Passing Defense -- 231.5 ypg (28th); Total Defense -- 327.0 ypg (24th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 13; Patriots, 23-16. At Miami, Patriots tight end Ben Watson caught two touchdown passes from Brady, including the game-winner with 2:16 remaining in the fourth quarter.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Dolphins -- Miami has lost its past five divisional road games. ... RB Williams needs 11 yards rushing to reach 7,000 for his career. ... DE Taylor has 76 sacks over the past six seasons combined, second-most in the NFL behind the Giants' Michael Strahan (77). Patriots -- New England has won nine consecutive home games against divisional opponents and 15 of its past 16 division games overall. ... WR Branch needs 21 yards receiving to record his first career 1,000-yard season and the first for a Patriots receiver since Troy Brown in 2001. ... New England is 5-0 in regular-season games played in January.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Dolphins -- 3-4 on the road; Patriots -- 5-2 at home.
The Associated Press News Service
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