Well, here we are again.
Just like last year, the Patriots enter Week 17 needing a win in Miami on Sunday to guarantee themselves the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs. Of course, they could still secure it if the Oakland Raiders were to lose later that afternoon in Denver.
To many observers last season, New England's run-heavy game plan against the Dolphins appeared to be a play-it-safe approach. However, it sounds as if this year's Patriots have a greater sense of urgency about taking care of their own business and not relying on anyone else to do it for them.
"I think it's huge," safety/co-captain Devin McCourty declared. "As a football team, there is no on-and-off switch. You know, you can't just decide when you want to play. I think from the outside [looking] in, everyone talks about really how this week is not that important and how the playoffs are right there. I think for us, none of that really matters. We're going against a division team that knows us well, that has beaten us [in Miami] over the last three years. I think it's important for us to just know our blueprint, know what we've done week-in and week-out and stay to that."
Unlike last season, when Miami was out of the playoff picture, the 2016 Dolphins, who started the season 1-4, are already in the postseason and trying to get up to the fifth seed.
"You've got nothing but respect for a team that starts off like that," observed WR Julian Edelman, "and then they play unbelievable football… to play the best football they can going into these final weeks. So, it's going to be a good test there… we're going to see how good we are."
"A lot on the line," remarked DE Chris Long. "At the end of the day, we're playing a really good football team on the road, and that's a great challenge for our defense. They're the best running team we've faced so far. So, it'll be a great test and an opportunity to go on the road and try to come together even more as a team."
"They've had a really good season and really have turned things around since we played them last [in Week 2]," added McCourty, "so, we know it will be a hostile environment. Going in there and getting a win will be big for us."
If the Patriots are successful on New Year's Day, they'll improve to an impressive 8-0 in road games this season.
"Overall it will be a great accomplishment," McCourty acknowledged, "but this is a really tough test. We haven't won down there in three years, so, it's even bigger than just this year. It's just trying to go down there and play well."
"It's a tougher place to play. They play well at home," echoed Edelman. "With the new year comes a new opportunity. We're looking forward to this opportunity to have a good week of preparation and practice to play against a good football team on Sunday."
Who plays, who rests?
In at least one respect, Week 17 is like Week 4 of the preseason. In both cases, teams like New England and Miami need to balance trying to win with preserving the health of their key players. Which begs the obvious question of which players will see the field, and if so, how much they'll participate.
Normal week. Prepare as usual," maintained backup QB Jimmy Garoppolo, who could see significant snaps on Sunday. Garoppolo came on late in the third quarter last week against the Jets when that game got out of hand on the scoreboard.
"We do such a good job in practice that, whether it's practice snaps or game reps, you want to get as many as you can," Garoppolo continued. "You never know when you're going to be called upon, so, you've got to take advantage of it when you do."
In Wednesday's practice, Garoppolo got most, if not all, of the first-team snaps, it's safe to assume, because starter Tom Brady was among four players who didn't take part. Brady has been dealing periodically with a right thigh injury since the Seattle game in Week 10.
Meanwhile, Edelman sounds anxious to take the field Sunday not just for team reasons, but personal ones as well. If he suits up and plays in Miami, Edelman will have appeared in all 16 regular season games for the Patriots this season. Only one other time in his pro career (2013) has he been healthy enough to go wire-to-wire.
"That's a big goal," he admitted. "I haven't done that in a while. It'll be good to be able to go in there and play my 16th game. That's number one – the health of the team. Fortunately, I have good health right now."
On the other sideline, Miami knows it will be without its starting quarterback, Ryan Tannehill, who's dealing with a significant left knee injury. Dolphins backup Matt Moore has guided Miami to 34 points and victories in each of their last two games.
Long told reporters he's still trying to learn as much as he can about Moore, but that one aspect in particular stands out.
"Just his presence in the pocket. He moves around just enough to make plays. He's not necessarily going to get down and run on you. His style's a little different than Tannehill, but he's very capable of doing all the things that Ryan did."
"We played him a couple years ago when he was a starting quarterback for Miami," McCourty noted. "[He's] a guy that's not in a situation that is unknown to him. He's started and led that football team. I would imagine that that team has tremendous trust in him player-wise for his leadership and what he brings… an experienced guy that knows the offense. [He] obviously has a good grasp of it and is going to be ready to go."
Aside from Brady, the three other noteworthy absences from today's practice were running back Dion Lewis, wide receiver Danny Amendola, who continues to nurse a right ankle injury, and rookie wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
According to the Boston Herald, citing an unnamed source, Lewis was not held out for injury or disciplinary reasons. It's unclear why Mitchell, who was seen getting dressed in the locker room beforehand, was not on the field. However, on his final reception against the Jets, in the middle of the third quarter this past Sunday, Mitchell appeared to hop up off the ground and clutch his right knee for a moment. His situation bears monitoring.