Getting out to a fast start against Miami this Saturday would go a long way in helping New England knock off the division-leading Dolphins.
Miami is one of the strongest finishing teams in the league. Five of the Dolphins nine victories have come when the Dolphins trailed at one point during the fourth quarter. The final 15 minutes are far and away the strongest period, with Miami outscoring opponents 111-48 in the final frame.
"We talk with our team every week about expecting to play a 60-minute game," Head Coach Bill Belichick said. "Miami has more than doubled their opponents score in the fourth quarter. They have come on strong late in a lot of their games, Denver being a good recent example."
Miami went into the fourth quarter of the win over Denver in Week 12 trailing 10-0. The ball got rolling when Jay Fiedler hit Chris Chambers for an 11-yard touchdown pass, and then the Dolphins got the lead on a 55-yard interception return by Kenny Mixon.
"They are the kind of team that can go along for a while, then get a couple turnovers and key plays," Belichick said. "You don't know where they are coming from. They could come from the defense, in the kicking game or from Chambers, [Oronde] Gadsden or those guys. They can explode in a hurry. That's why they have a good record and why they are leading the division."
On the other side, New England has gotten a big boost from its defense recently. Since Week Seven against Denver, the Patriots have 15 interceptions in eight games after getting four in the first six games. Over the last four games they have allowed just 58 points, an average of just 16.5 per game.
"In the last few weeks the defensive players have done a good job of executing the game plan," Belichick said. "They have played with more consistency and have done a better job of understanding the things we need to do to be successful against a particular team, rather than just going out there and playing. It's been very specific, and they've done that in games. I don't think we necessarily did a great job of it earlier in the year at times, but it's been better lately.
"We've expanded our scheme a little bit where we've been in a 3-4 and a 4-3. We've been playing extra defensive backs with Terrance Shaw and [Terrell] Buckley and Matt Stevens. In the end it really comes down to execution. That has definitely improved."
The improvement will have to continue. New England has the AFC East division title in its sights, but Belichick let his team know they have to take care of business this weekend if they have bigger and better ideas for the future.
"For us to have any chance in this division race, we have to beat Miami, period," Belichick said. "Whatever you want to call that, de facto playoff game or no de facto playoff game. If we want to win the division, we've got to beat Miami. That's what I tried to boil it down to."
Rookie explosive in Miami offense
Usually at this point in the season, rookies are hitting the proverbial wall. The opposite is true for Miami's Chambers, who has been hot of late.
After going without a touchdown for the first seven games of his career, he has seven in his last six games, setting a franchise record for rookies in the process. On the season Chambers has 36 catches for 667 yards, good for an impressive average of 18.5 yards per catch,
"He has given them big plays in the passing game and big plays with his returns," Belichick said. "He's got top speed and they use him on a lot of vertical passes. The fact that they've hit him on quite a few, the threat is there. Even if they don't throw it to him, it forces your defense to soften up to defend those, which will sometimes open it up somewhere else."
Belichick was not just giving lip service about Chambers big play ability. Chambers has 11 of Miami's 23 catches of 25 yards or more. That total ranks him tied for fifth in the league, trailing only Arizona's David Boston (13), San Francisco's Terrell Owens (13), Indianapolis' Marvin Harrison (12) and Minnesota's Randy Moss (12).
"There have been several plays where it looks like the defensive back has pretty good position, and then Chambers pulls away and makes the play at the end," Belichick said. "He has that same burst on kickoff returns. He runs hard and really hits it going full speed. He comes up there at 100 miles per hour and he's not holding anything back. If he can hit the crease, he's going to make a lot of yards."
The Dolphins originally had safety Brock Marion returning kickoffs when the season began. Three weeks in Chambers became the main guy, and he since has averaged 22.7 yards on 35 returns. His long on the year is 47 yards.
"We really need to bring our A game against that guy this week," said Larry Izzo, who leads the NFL with 21 special teams tackles. "They do a great job of blocking for him, and he hits the hole as hard as any guy we've seen all year. It's going to be a challenge for us."
The Patriots got positive news on defensive end Willie McGinest Wednesday when he was upgraded to probable with a leg injury. McGinest has not played in three straight games since getting hurt at the end of the win over New Orleans.
"We expect him to practice today," Belichick said. "He's better than he has been. I talked to him yesterday afternoon and I think he'll be able to do a lot more than he was able to do last week."
The only others on the Patriots list were tight end Rod Rutledge (ankle) and cornerback Terrance Shaw (leg), both of whom are probable.
Wide receiver Troy Brown needs just six catches to match New England's all-time mark for catches in a season. The record was set by tight end Ben Coates, who caught 96 passes in 1994… Safety Lawyer Milloy needs just one tackle to record his fifth straight 100 tackle season… Kicker Adam Vinatieri has 97 points, leaving him just three short of his sixth straight season with 100 or more points.