After getting Christmas Day off, Patriots players were back at Gillette Stadium on Thursday to resume preparations for their regular season finale against Brian Flores and his 4-11 Miami Dolphins. Winners of four of their last eight games, the Dolphins are an improved team since getting blown out by the Patriots in Week 2.
"Improved tremendously," said Bill Belichick. "It's a team that got outscored by about 100 points in the first three games or something like that. 4-4 in the last eight, lost to the Jets by a point, lost to Washington by a point, been in a lot competitive games.
"It's a young team that seems like they're gaining confidence and are definitely getting better every week. That's what we have to get ready for."
The Patriots have been treating the matchup like a playoff game, as New England still needs to lock up the second seed and the bye week that comes with it. It might be easy to overlook the Dolphins if the Patriots playoff seed was already locked in, but with a collection of former Patriot coaches and players, the team knows they're in for a tough fight.
"I'll say the Miami Dolphins have gotten a lot better from Week 1 to now," said outside linebackers coach Demarcus Covington. "And so their coaching staff has done a good job of preparing the players: they play hard, they do a lot of good things up front, they do a lot of good things with their receiver corps, and then of course we just talked about their quarterback just being a savvy vet that has played a lot of football and who can lead that group in the right direction. And so I would never say the word easy."
Perhaps the most difficult thing is how well the Dolphins coaches know the Patriots, inside and out. Not only do the teams run similar systems but Miami has special knowledge of the things that have given the Patriots defense problems in recent years.
"It's very similar to our offense," observed Devin McCourty. "You see some of the things and you say 'I've seen that before.' I think the thing you always have to be ready for -- every time we used to play against our offense we just ran our vanilla stuff, our fundamental stuff -- and it's a gameplan offense. They're going to have some things that are going to be different for us, how we play as a defense. There's a lot of similarities but we have to be prepared for some of the different things, and knowing they know our defense very well. They know different things, things that have hurt us throughout the years of being here. It's very similar offense but we have to prepared for anything and always be prepared for adjustments."
With Miami coming off their best offensive performance of the season and nothing to lose, they should come out loose and ready to throw the ball.
"You know offensively, they're very solid and explosive, ran up 500 yards against Cincinnati," said Belichick. "Certainly the quarterback Fitzpatrick brings a lot of energy and toughness and competitiveness to the field and makes plays. [DeVante] Parker's having a great year. [Mike] Gesicki's really stepped up and become a productive player. [Albert] Wilson's a very talented and explosive guy."
Having played the Dolphins once already can help, but with playoff-like preparation the Patriots should be ready to ensure their regular season doesn't end on a low note.
"We've played them before," said McCourty. "In this case it's kind of going against ourselves. When we're out there on the field we're going to hear a lot of terminology that we hear in practice. That definitely helps but at the end of they day you still have to put in the work and be prepared and be ready to go."
Preparation was Duron Harmon's focus as well as he brushed off Miami's overall record and lack of incentive in this game.
"A lot of people can try to say what's going to happen on Sunday but we don't know," said Harmon. "We have to prepare to play a good football team and make sure we can do everything we can to control our destiny."
Practice & Injury Report
The Patriots were back on the practice field the day after Christmas and in full pads, with all in attendance with the exception of Shilique Calhoun, who is fighting an illness. All significant players battling through injuries, including Jonathan Jones (groin), Jason McCourty (groin) and Julian Edelman (knee/shoulder) were present, an especially good sign since it was a fully padded practice.
DID NOT PARTICIPATE
LB Shilique Calhoun, Illness
LB Ja'Whaun Bentley, Knee
OT Marcus Cannon, Ankle
LB Jamie Collins, Shoulder
WR Julian Edelman, Knee / Shoulder
CB Jonathan Jones, Groin
CB Jason McCourty, Groin
Locker Room Sound Bites
Ben Watson on playing football down the stretch and in the playoffs.
"This is December football. December football in New England is fun and it's important and it always is. There's always a sense of urgency and a sense that each play can really be your last from this point going forward. That's not just for us, that's for everybody who is entering the postseason. That's how you have to look at it. That's how you have to play."