Halfway through the season, the New England Patriots have the same number of losses they compiled the last two years en route to winning back-to-back Super Bowls.
Still, they’re alone atop the AFC East.
That could change this week because as unlikely as it may seem, the Miami Dolphins can move into a first-place tie with the Patriots if Nick Saban can win his first matchup against former mentor Bill Belichick.
No team in the AFC East is above .500, leaving New England at the top with a 4-4 record. The Patriots went 34-4 the last two seasons, but numerous injuries and the offseason departure of their offensive and defensive coordinators have taken a toll.
The Dolphins, coming off a 4-12 season and believed to be rebuilding under Saban, have lost four of five games but will share the division lead with a victory Sunday. Buffalo could make it a three-way tie, going into the weekend a game back with Miami at 3-5.
New England again looks to avoid losing consecutive games for the first time since December 2002. The Patriots have alternated wins and losses through the season’s first eight games following Monday night’s 40-21 home defeat to Indianapolis.
“We need to play better and we’ve got to fight harder,” Tom Brady said. “And give a lot of credit to the Colts. They played really well. I think we just made too many mistakes. And there’s a lot of football left.”
The Patriots still have five division games remaining. They’ve won 11 of their last 12 contests against AFC East foes.
“We’ve got a lot of division games and, hopefully, we can turn it around,” Brady said.
While Brady has been about the only consistently solid performer for the Patriots, the quarterback position in Miami has been a weakness.
Saban, though, is sticking with Gus Frerotte as his starter despite the 12-year veteran ranking 29th in the league in passing and failing to throw for 200 yards in three straight games. Many fans in Miami have been calling for backup Sage Rosenfels, who has started one game in five NFL seasons.
“It’s a slippery slope when you start doing that,” Saban said of switching quarterbacks. “Now you really create a lot of chemistry issues.”
In last week’s 17-10 loss to Atlanta, Frerotte had a season-low 103 yards and threw his ninth interception of the season on the Dolphins’ final play, when they were on the verge of forcing overtime.
Miami has not scored more than 21 points in five consecutive games, but faces a New England defense that has not looked like a typical Belichick-led unit.
The Patriots, who lost cornerback Duane Starks to a season-ending shoulder injury this week, have surrendered at least 28 points in four of five games. The 220 points they’ve given up this year are just 40 shy of what they allowed all of last season.
Defense, though, remains the specialty of both coaches.
When Belichick was Browns coach in the early 1990s, he hired Saban as his defensive coordinator. The duo spent four years together in Cleveland and have remained close.
“We’re friends and we come from the same coaching philosophy,” Belichick said. “The things he runs I understand and the thing I run he understands.”
Saban is likely to call for a lot of running plays against Belichick’s defense.
After rushing for only 92 yards on 34 carries in his first two games, Brown has run for 519 yards and three touchdowns over his last six contests. Williams has gained 134 yards on 27 attempts over the last two weeks.
“We look like a really good team when (Nos.) 23 and 34 have the ball,” Saban said. “Sometimes when we’re doing other things, we don’t look quite as good.”
Running the ball hasn’t been as easy for New England. Corey Dillon, battling an ankle injury, is averaging a career-low 3.5 yards per carry and has rushed for 441 yards through eight games. He had 900 at the midway point last season.