Patriots, Dolphins have plenty to play for

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Patriots, Dolphins have plenty to play for

FOXBORO -- Envisioning sugar plums instead of touchdown spikes for the weekend ahead?

It's hard to blame any Patriots fan who's underwhelmed by Saturday's matchup against the 5-9 Miami Dolphins. New England already has its playoff ticket punched; a 41-23 win in Denver last week secured the team's AFC East title.

Nobody was more excited than those 53 in uniform. The celebratory cries for hats and t-shirts rang through Mile High's halls. Each player hugged or saluted team personnel on the way to the locker room. Not one guy was unaware of New England's perch atop the divisional pile and pride ruled the night.

Tough act for Week 16 to follow.

Miami's five wins have only been scrounged from its last seven games. Tony Sparano was shamed and fired with more than enough time in the month to get holiday shopping done. Several Dolphins starters are playing well under 100 percent with injuries, including quarterback Matt Moore (concussion), outside linebacker Koa Misi (shoulder), strong safety Yeremiah Bell (turf toe), right guard Vernon Carey (ankle), tight end Anthony Fasano (rib) and Vontae Davis (neck).

With no hope of postseason play, what will inspire the 'Phins to make things interesting at Gillette this Christmas Eve? Can they bring anything better than a butter knife to New England's usual gun fight?

It comes back to pride.

The Dolphins stretch of .714 football is symbolic now. It's proof they're not a 0-7 team -- not the hapless bunch Tom Brady torched for 517 yards back in Week 1. Matt Moore laid the team's hand on the table after Miami's last win, a 30-23 triumph over Buffalo.

"The pride of this team, which is basically all we've got now, is showing," Moore said.

New England knows a wounded dog is dangerous.

"A man's pride is everything," said James Ihedigbo. "You can see that they're playing with pride and they're playing very intense, very physical football. We have to come out and set the tone early, and not try to match their intensity later, but set the tone and make them match ours."

Devin McCourty said it's easy to get the blood hot against such a familiar foe. Especially with the way Miami has turned its season around. The Dolphins are playing great football right now and that's something that will annoy New England in any week of any year.

"There's no love lost in these divisional games," McCourty said. "We play these guys twice a year so, no matter what the situation is, both teams come in wanting to beat each other. It's going to be a highly competitive game."

Still not excited? Consider this: There's still a No. 1 seed -- a first-round bye, home-field advantage -- up for grabs in the conference. The Patriots are only fibbing a little when they say they're focused on Miami and not the playoffs.

They're focused on Miami because of the playoffs.

"We've got to finish these last two games," said Rob Ninkovich. "If we go out there and don't play well, it's going to affect our seeding."

Ah-ha. On one hand, you have a team scratching and clawing for respect -- for themselves as competitors, for the city they disappointed, and their coach-turned-casualty. On the other, you have a cold-blooded killer still hunting an important postseason position. Throw in the divisional rivalry aspect and Saturday's tilt doesn't sound like a snoozer after all.

"We're playing this game to continue on the road that we're headed," Ihedigbo said. "Miami's just another team that's in our way."

Put those sugar plums on pause, kids.

Report: NFL paid Goodell over $31 million in 2015

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Report: NFL paid Goodell over $31 million in 2015

Roger Goodell's salary has reportedly fallen in recent years, but he's still paid handsomely for his work as NFL commissioner.

According to the Associated Press, Goodell earned just over $31 million for 2015. That's a seven percent decrease from the $34 million he received for 2014. 

The NFL's last tax return served as an indicator of Goodell's 2015 salary. The league's tax returns no longer have to be made public since it has changed its status from exempt to taxable, per the AP.

The next-highest paid executive at the NFL offices on Park Avenue? General counsel Jeff Pash, one of the most prominent players in the Deflategate sage, who earned $6.5 million in 2015, down from $7.5 million in 2014. 

Richardson suspended one game for violating personal conduct policy

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Richardson suspended one game for violating personal conduct policy

The NFL announced this week that Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson has been suspended without pay for Week 1 of the 2016 regular season for violating the league's personal conduct policy. 

Richardson will miss his team's season-opener against the Bengals and will be eligible to return to the Jets active roster on Sep. 12. The Jets and the Patriots meet for the first of their two division games on Nov. 27. 

Richardson responded to the news of suspension on Thursday. 

In July of 2015, Richardson led police on a high-speed chase -- hitting speeds as high as 143 miles per hour -- in suburban St. Louis. Police reported a strong odor of marijuana in the car and inside found a loaded, semiautomatic handgun that was possessed legally. Richardson had a 12-year-old relative riding with him in his Bentley at the time of the incident.

In January, Richardson pleaded guilty to resisting arrest. Though he avoided jail time, he was sentenced to two years probation and 100 hours of community service. 

Richardson has been one of the league's best defensive linemen since entering the league as a first-rounder in 2013. He served a four-game suspension to start last season after violating the league's substance abuse policy.

PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

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PFF: Collins is 'the best linebacker in the AFC'

He may have been left off of the NFL Network's Top 100 list, but Jamie Collins isn't flying under the radar at Pro Football Focus.

On PFF's list of the top 10 defensive players in the AFC, the Patriots linebacker came in at No. 8 and was given the description as the top linebacker in the conference.

Collins' versatility within the confines of the Patriots defense is what makes him so valuable, PFF's John Kosko explains: 

"He doesn’t dominate in any one role like Luke Kuechly does in pass coverage and run defense, but he is very good at all facets of the game. Collins has the athleticism to cover TEs and HBs effectively, the explosiveness to rush the passer, and the size and strength to defend the run. 

"The former Southern Mississippi linebacker is arguably the most versatile player in the NFL, and allows Bill Belichick to employ a defense that confuses opposing quarterbacks. With the only knock against Collins being his 34 missed tackles the past two seasons, the Patriot is the best linebacker in the AFC."

Collins graded out as the No. 5 linebacker in football last year, per PFF's numbers. He ranked behind only Carolina's Luke Kuechly, Minnesota's Anthony Barr, Indianapolis' Jerrell Freeman and Seattle's KJ Wright. 

Fellow Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower earned the 10th-highest grade for linebackers last season, according to PFF -- a grade that likely would have been higher had his snap-count (602 in 2015) approached that of Collins (792).

While Collins is a rare physical talent, the argument could be made that it's Hightower who is the more important player to the Patriots defense given his prowess as a pass-rusher and run-defender. He also has myriad responsibilities as the extension of the team's coaching staff in the defensive huddle. 

In order to slow down opposing passing games, many Patriots defensive packages employ either five or six defensive backs and just two linebackers. Lucky for them, they have two of the best in the conference.

Both Collins and Hightower are entering contract years this year, and finding a way to keep them in-house figures to be near the top of the list of priorities for the Patriots front office.