Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: What might have been for Miami
And in today's finale comes an AFC East showdown against the league's sixth-ranked scoring defense, Miami - led by head coach Jim Harbaugh and quarterback Peyton Manning.
It's a purely fictional scenario now, of course. Harbaugh heads the 49ers and Manning is headed to the playoffs as a Bronco. But if Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had gotten his way after making a couple of hard presses over the past two offseasons, that's what his team would be. And today's game in Foxborough would probably have much more at stake for the Patriots than merely seeding.
As it is, New England enters the final day of the regular campaign knowing that if it wins, it'll be the conference's No. 2 seed with a loss by either Denver or Houston, or it'll be the No. 1 seed with losses by both. If it loses, it'll be the No. 3 (if Baltimore loses) or No. 4 seed (if Baltimore wins).
But given that the Dolphins are a respectable 7-8 with Ryan Tannehill under center and Joe Philbin leading the sidelines, given the way Harbaugh has turned 49ers back into an NFC powerhouse, and given the difference Manning has made in his first season with the Broncos, it's hardly a stretch to think that with last year's coach of the year and this year's MVP co-front runner in the franchise's two most critical positions, Miami would be at least three games better than it is with a pair of rookies in charge.
Beyond the way that would change the dynamics of a New England-dominated division, it would have certainly meant the Patriots wouldn't have clinched the East crown on Dec. 2, and probably also meant today's result would be the difference between them beginning the playoffs at home or on the road.
The Dolphins have enough other pieces. They're allowing only 19.3 points per game - just a fraction worse than the Denver defense riding Manning to the playoffs. They have a top-10 run defense that's allowed only eight rushing touchdowns. They have a beastly pass rusher in Cameron Wake, who has 15 sacks.
They have a 1,000-yard receiver in Brian Hartline, and Davone Bess, who is tied for fourth in the AFC with 24 third-down receptions. They have Reggie Bush, who is 40 yards away from his second straight 1,000-yard rushing season and averaging 4.4 yards per haul. They have an offensive line that's allowed the fourth-fewest quarterback hits, and yielded the 12th-fewest sacks in the NFL.
All they're missing is the upper-tier quarterback required to really compete for a ring, and the difference-making coach to tie it all together. There's a chance, of course, that Tannehill and Philbin will eventually grow into those roles, as each has shown promise in his first season on the job - but if Ross had his way they'd already be in place. And the Patriots' firm grip on the AFC East would be in some doubt.
Both today, and for at least a couple years to come.
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UNDERRATED: Michael Hoomanawanui. Josh McDaniels brought the tight end with him from St. Louis, and he has proven a useful weapon in the Patriots' offense, whether as a blocker, a pass-catcher or even as a fullback. For a team that loves versatility, he fits nicely in a number of places - most visibly in the form of 41- and 32-yard receptions the past two weeks. "He's played on punt team, played on kickoff return team, he's given us some snaps on special teams so he's got some versatility," Bill Belichick said. "He's intelligent, he's a big, strong guy that has some athleticism and can catch the ball."
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OVERRATED: Tannehill's improvement. The Dolphins' rookie hasn't thrown an interception since Nov. 25, and Philbin praised him this week for not trying to force the ball into crowded coverage. However, in a year where three rookie quarterbacks have made major splashes across the NFL, the Dolphins' first-round pick still isn't showing the improvement necessary to be a real playmaker. His rating is up (88.5) because he's not turning it over, but his completion percentage (56.5) and average per attempt (5.97) are both down compared to previous months.
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KEEP AN EYE ON.: Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. Both of the Patriots' primary tight ends were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report - and after Gronkowski has missed six weeks, while Hernandez has played, it might be in the best interest of the team's playoff chances for them to trade places today. If his broken forearm and ailing hip will allow, Gronkowski could use the repetitions before the postseason, while Hernandez has lacked his signature explosiveness and could seemingly benefit from resting the ankle he sprained in Week 2.
Saturday, CSN New England reported Gronkowski is expected to play today.
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KEY MATCHUP: New England's offense vs. Miami's defense in the red zone. The Patriots have turned possessions inside the enemy's 20-yard line into touchdowns more often than any team in football - 46 of 67, or 68.7 percent - though today they meet the defense that's the NFL's best at keeping opponents out of the end zone in those predicaments. The Dolphins have yielded just 203 points on 51 such situations, including only 20 touchdowns (39.2 percent) and 21 field goals. Earlier this month, New England saw fourth-quarter drives stall at Miami's 14 and its 2 (the latter almost intentionally) en route to scoring two touchdowns and two field goals in four red zone visits.
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STAT OF THE WEEK: If the Broncos total 524 yards of offense today, and the Patriots gain 0, New England will still have outgained every other AFC team this season with 6,403. The Pats enter the season finale with a 180-yard advantage over Detroit for the NFL lead.
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Dave D';Onofrio covers Boston sports for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @davedonofrio