NFL: New England Patriots at Los Angeles Chargers

Patriots defensive tackle Adam Butler sacks Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert in the Dec. 6 game won by New England, 45-0.

Spoiler alert.

Here come the Patriots.

In an AFC East role reversal, the Pats can cripple the Dolphins’ playoff hopes with a late-season win Sunday in Miami. Since falling back below .500 last week, the Patriots’ odds of making the postseason have shrunk to 2%, per FiveThirtyEight. Meanwhile, the Dolphins are clinging to the third and final Wild Card spot in the AFC and can guarantee themselves a playoff berth by winning out.

Should they lose to the Pats, their postseason odds will fall to 7%; implications that mirror the stakes New England used to face with Miami, where a first-round playoff bye and a divisional title both slipped from their grasp in recent seasons.

After spending 15 years with the Patriots, no one should understand this changed dynamic better than Dolphins coach Brian Flores. Yet on Wednesday, Flores downplayed the idea that the tectonic plates underneath the AFC East have already shifted.

“I don’t think we’ve really flipped roles. I think they’re trying to win one game, and we’re trying to win one game. That’s where we’re at, and that’s kind of our thought process. And I’m sure — actually I know — that that’s what they’re saying in their building,” Flores said.

“I could see how people could think that it’s flipped, but for us it’s a one-game season. It’s the same for them.”

Except, regardless of how Sunday unfolds, the actual season will continue. The Pats have already holed themselves into multiple “one-game seasons” this year, games they labeled as must-wins and subsequently lost. Still, the show went on.

Around the NFL, motivation to make the playoffs is inevitably replaced by pride or some other purpose in December. It’s how a vacation-bound Miami team fueled itself for a 27-24 upset in last year’s regular-season finale at Foxborough, Mass., where the Patriots lost their handle on a first-round playoff bye.

“That was one of our goals: to ruin it for them,” Dolphins cornerback Nik Needham said post-game. “And we did that.”

Pats safety Adrian Phillips, who played for several underachieving Chargers teams before landing in New England, said his focus is largely unchanged this week, despite the team’s new circumstances. “It is a division opponent, and we do want to beat them. And we want to end with the best record possible. That’s mainly our mindset,” Phillips said. “Just end with the best record possible, just go out there — we’ve got three games left — go out there and win ‘em. You never know what can happen around the league, but just do our part and just end the best way that we can.”

Reflecting on his time with the Chargers, Phillips said his focus then is the same is as it is now.

“It’s always the same message: control what you can control. And let the chips fall where they may.”

Why?

“You can’t start thinking about the other two games or the outside noise or the possibility of going to the playoffs because when you do, you just mess up your chance that week,” he explained, “because you’re worried about all the outside noise.”

Fellow safety Devin McCourty also seemed to resist the idea of playing spoiler. In recent weeks, McCourty has been consistent in his messaging that playing NFL football is something to be cherished. So regardless of how the Pats might sink in the standings, he feels a sense of gratitude while another game sits on their schedule.

“In my 11th year, I’m not going to take any game for granted no matter what happens this season,” McCourty said.

“As an older guy, we all have that approach, and we’re going to pass that down in this locker room.

Though as McCourty detailed how he’s been experiencing the past few days, coming off the loss in Los Angeles that undercut the Patriots’ playoff chances, something else curiously sprung to his mind: the Dolphins’ postseason hopes.

“As disappointing as (last) Thursday was, we still have to realize we have three games left, and nothing else matters other than what we do out there on the field,” he said. “That starts with Sunday putting our best foot forward and trying to get a tough win on the road against a team who’s also trying to continue to win and hoping their season continues.”

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