The first time the Miami Dolphins and New England Patriots met this season, a stunning blowout in Foxborough ended the Patriots’ 21-game regular-season winning streak and gave the Dolphins their first road win in nearly two years.
In the rematch, the circumstances will be shockingly different: Miami would have the inside track to the playoffs with a win, while New England’s chances of a sixth straight postseason berth could be critically wounded with a loss.
This time, the resurgent Dolphins will be the ones carrying a winning streak into the AFC East battle, looking for their fifth straight victory when they host the Patriots on Sunday.
Even though the Patriots were still adjusting to life without injured MVP Tom Brady on Sept. 21, they certainly weren’t expecting to suffer a 25-point home loss to a team that was coming off a 1-15 season and had lost 11 straight road games.
But the Dolphins - 0-2 at the time - surprised New England with their Wildcat offense. Running back Ronnie Brown received several direct snaps, rushing for 113 yards and four touchdowns and adding a passing touchdown to tight end Anthony Fasano in the 38-13 win.
“To have an opponent like that and win, it showed we had grown as a team,” Brown said.
It also jump-started an impressive recent run by Miami (6-4). Starting with that game, the Dolphins have won six of their last eight.
That run has brought Miami into a second-place tie with New England in the AFC East, one game behind the New York Jets, and both teams are tied with Baltimore and Indianapolis for the conference’s two wild-card spots.
All of the Dolphins’ victories besides the one in Foxborough have been by fewer than 10 points, with the defense holding each of those opponents under 20 points while the offense, led by quarterback Chad Pennington, has not turned the ball over more than once in a game all season.
One week after denying a late two-point conversion attempt to secure a 21-19 win over Seattle, Miami needed rookie Dan Carpenter’s 38-yard field goal with 38 seconds left to beat lowly Oakland 17-15 last Sunday.
“We keep putting ourselves in these dogfights,” said linebacker Joey Porter, the NFL sacks leader with 13 1/2 entering Week 12. “You don’t want them to come back and bite you. When you’ve got a team down, you’ve got to figure out how to put them away. Having last-second wins is not something you want to be hoping for every time.”
Still, Miami’s turnaround has been swift. The Dolphins hired coach Tony Sparano and added Bill Parcells to their front office after their disastrous 2007 campaign, and they’ve now put themselves within reach of their first playoff appearance since 2001.
“This is why we do what we do. We put ourselves in position to have a big game at home at the end of November. That’s where we are,” Sparano said. “That being said, I don’t think too much has to be said this week.”
That hasn’t stopped Porter from his typical pre-game trash talk. Before the Sept. 21 meeting, Porter said it “shouldn’t be that hard” to beat New England, and this week, he complained about what he felt was poor sportsmanship by the Patriots when Brady didn’t take a knee at the end of a 28-7 win over the Dolphins last Dec. 23.
“We don’t like them,” Porter said. “They don’t like us.”
The Patriots (6-4) are still smarting from a loss to a team they probably dislike even more than Miami. With the AFC East lead on the line last Thursday night against the Jets, New England rallied from a pair of deficits to force overtime, but never had the ball in the extra session and lost 34-31 at Gillette Stadium.
In his best performance as a pro, Matt Cassel went 30-of-51 for 400 yards passing and three touchdowns without an interception, also adding 62 rushing yards. His 16-yard touchdown pass to Randy Moss with one second left tied the score.
But the Patriots’ injury-depleted defense - playing without starters Ty Warren, Adalius Thomas and Rodney Harrison - struggled in the first half as the Jets built a 24-6 lead, then couldn’t stop New York in overtime.
“We dug ourselves too much of a hole and when we really needed to stop them in overtime, we didn’t make enough plays,” defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. “But there’s still a lot of football left. We’ll take some time to rest up. Obviously some guys didn’t play, so we’ll get to get everyone healthy and try to go on this run here in the second half of the season.”
Winning in Miami has typically been a problem for the Patriots. They’re 8-29 in South Florida since 1970, and even the last five seasons, with the Patriots going to the playoffs and the Dolphins missing the postseason each year, they’ve gone just 3-2 there.
Things may be even tougher with Dolphin Stadium buzzing for its biggest game in at least a few seasons.
“This should be the first time I see our stadium sold out,” Porter said. “I’ve been here a year and a half and still haven’t seen the place sold out. This matchup should definitely get us to that level.”