(Dec. 8, 2006) -- As is frequently the case in December, the New England Patriots are on a winning streak. If they can't eliminate the mistakes from their play, however, that streak could be in danger.
New England (9-3) seeks its fourth straight victory and strives for a more disciplined effort Sunday when it visits the Miami Dolphins (5-7).
The Patriots defeated Detroit 28-21 last week to improve to a league-best 35-6 in games played after Thanksgiving -- including playoffs -- dating to the 2001 season. The victory was far from easy, though, as New England had to overcome an eight-point fourth-quarter deficit, three turnovers and 10 penalties to defeat the 2-10 Lions.
"We always search for something to improve upon from week to week and usually it's only a couple of things," Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi said. "Now we have a lot of things."
Turnovers have become a nagging problem for the Patriots, who have 18 giveaways over their last six games -- tied with Chicago and Minnesota for the most in the NFL over that span. New England has also been penalized for 153 yards over the past two contests, with defensive penalties resulting in seven first downs for opponents.
Fortunately for the Patriots, the Lions turned the ball over five times last Sunday. Two weeks ago, the Bears committed four turnovers, helping New England survive five giveaways of its own in a 17-13 victory.
"We played a terrible game," said Patriots cornerback Asante Samuel, who had one interception against Detroit after grabbing three against Chicago. "We are just getting by and you can't do that."
Running back Corey Dillon gained only 25 yards on nine carries against the Lions, but had three touchdown runs, including two in the game's final 8:35 as the Patriots rallied. The 10-year veteran has yet to gain 100 yards in a game this season while splitting carries with rookie Laurence Maroney, but his 10 rushing TDs rank fourth in the league.
Dillon may need to carry a heavier load Sunday. Maroney left last week's game in the first quarter after the Patriots said he had the wind knocked out of him. He did not return, and his status for this week is uncertain.
New England owns a two-game lead over the New York Jets in the AFC East with four to play. The Patriots are also in contention for one of the AFC's top two seeds and a first-round bye in the playoffs, as they trail South and West division leaders Indianapolis and San Diego by one game.
The team's current winning streak -- and its last four wins overall -- has come against NFC North competition. The Patriots, who suffered consecutive losses to the Colts and Jets last month, have not beaten an AFC opponent since a 28-6 win at Buffalo on Oct. 22.
Against the Dolphins at home Oct. 8, New England gained a season-low 213 yards of offense but managed to win 20-10 -- a result Patriots coach Bill Belichick downplayed this week.
"What difference does it make what happened last week or last month or how many games somebody else won or how many games you won?" Belichick said. "It's about this week, how to maximize that opportunity."
Miami usually gives New England a tough time. The Patriots have only lost two regular season games in December and January over the last four seasons, but both defeats came to the Dolphins. Miami's six wins over the Patriots since Belichick's arrival in 2000 are the most of any opponent during that span.
The Dolphins have won six of their last eight home meetings with New England, but are looking to bounce back from a 24-10 home loss to Jacksonville on Sunday. The defeat snapped a four-game winning streak and left Miami -- a club some expected to contend in the AFC East after winning its last six games of 2005 -- almost certain to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
Miami is two games behind a pack of five teams for the AFC's two wild-card berths.
"We had a slim shot at the playoffs before," Dolphins running back Sammy Morris said. "A lot of stuff had to happen. We did it to ourselves."
Morris rushed 12 times for 47 yards in his first start this season in place of Ronnie Brown, who's out with a fractured left hand suffered in a 27-10 win over Detroit on Thanksgiving Day.
Like the Patriots, turnovers hurt the Dolphins last week. Joey Harrington threw two interceptions, both of which led to Jacksonville touchdowns on the ensuing drives.
In its seven losses, Miami has turned the ball 14 times while forcing only six from its opponents.
Defensively, the Dolphins had trouble stopping the Jaguars, allowing 150 rushing yards for just the second time this season and yielding two scoring drives longer than 90 yards.