The New England Patriots should have a pretty good idea whether their regular-season finale has any significance in the AFC playoff picture before the opening kickoff.
Either way, it may mean something to their confidence heading into the postseason.
After a pair of uninspiring starts, the Patriots look to produce a better first half of football Sunday when they host the Miami Dolphins.
New England (11-4) fell behind lowly Jacksonville 10-0 in the first 10 minutes last weekend. Although the AFC East champions recovered for a 23-16 victory, their slow start the previous week may have cost them a bye in the playoffs.
The Patriots trailed San Francisco 31-3 at home Dec. 16, rallying to tie the score but eventually losing 41-34. That leaves them one game behind both Houston and Denver going into Week 17.
"We've got to do a better job," Tom Brady said Monday during his weekly appearance on WEEI radio. "We've got some pretty important weeks of football ahead, and that's when we really need to play our best."
The Patriots, who hold tiebreakers over the Texans and Broncos after beating both, could still claim one of the top two seeds in the AFC if one of those teams loses Sunday. Houston plays at Indianapolis early in the afternoon.
That result won't affect the Colts, who are locked into the No. 5 seed, but New England will still be watching the scoreboard. Denver is heavily favored at home against Kansas City, with that game happening at the same time the Patriots face Miami.
Even if the chance of a bye is remote, New England may need a win to secure the AFC's No. 3 spot if Baltimore beats Cincinnati early. The third-place team will host the Bengals next weekend, while the No. 4 seed faces Indianapolis.
All of those scenarios, including the chance of a short week before a Saturday wild-card game, could affect coach Bill Belichick's personnel decisions Sunday.
"You can't be totally oblivious to the possibilities that exist out there," Belichick said. "There are quite a few possibilities. It's really hard to be specific on something like that when there are so many possibilities."
There's a possibility New England could have one of its most important offensive weapons back Sunday. Rob Gronkowski hasn't played since breaking his arm late in a 59-24 win over the Colts on Nov. 18, although he still has twice as many receiving touchdowns (10) as any teammate.
The Patriots' top-ranked offense looked sluggish in Jacksonville, with Brady throwing a pair of interceptions and the team converting a season-low 23 first downs. New England has gone 6 for 27 on third down over the last two weeks.
Brady blamed the performance against the Jaguars largely on "self-inflicted errors," and offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels seemed to agree.
"Certainly, (we) never really got into the game where we felt like we were going to string together a bunch of drives," McDaniels said.
Even though the Patriots have won five straight against the Dolphins, it's far from certain that they'll be able to dominate Sunday. They gained a season-low 321 yards in a 23-16 win at Miami on Dec. 2, and they trailed 17-0 at halftime against the Dolphins at home last season before rallying to win 27-24.
Miami (7-8) would love to avoid a fourth straight losing season and finish with a third consecutive victory. Coach Joe Philbin's team has allowed 13 total points in its last two games, home victories over Jacksonville and Buffalo.
"We're building a foundation that is going to deliver excellent football teams here in the future," Philbin said. "And it takes time."
Rookie Ryan Tannehill has gone four straight games without an interception and has thrown four TD passes over the last two weeks. The Dolphins also totaled 362 rushing yards in their back-to-back wins, and Reggie Bush needs only 40 more for his second straight 1,000-yard season.
"Our offense is really getting into a rhythm," Bush said. "We hit a low point midway through the season where we were kind of struggling to run that ball, and I think that really hurt us. I feel like now we've kind of hit that stride where everybody is on the same page, our chemistry is good, our defense is playing well, and it feels good."
The Patriots may want to get a few key defensive players some rest for the playoffs. Linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee, ankle) missed last week's game and cornerback Aqib Talib (hip) was extremely limited.
The Associated Press News Service
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