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.

Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

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Secretary of Navy: Cardona 'may have to leave the Patriots' to serve

United States Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus joined the Dan Patrick Show on Thursday to discuss new Ravens draftee Keenan Reynolds, a record-setting quarterback during his career at the Naval Academy. In so doing, Mabus hit on the uncertain status of Patriots long-snapper Joe Cardona. 

"Right now we do have a process," Mabus said. "It hasn't got up to me yet to [decide on whether or not Reynolds will be eligible to play], but there are a lot of paths to both play and to serve. 

"We've got Joe Cardona, long snapper for the Patriots. He played . . . last year for the Patriots while he was on active duty because he was able to work them both out. Now he's been assigned to a ship, and he's going to report to that ship. He may have to leave the Patriots for a year or so to go fulfill that roll."

The playing status for individuals like Reynolds and Cardona is always somewhat uncertain given their commitment. Last season, Cardona was able to serve by working at the Naval Preparatory Academy during his time away from the Patriots facilities. Once his rookie season ended, he headed back to the Newport, Rhode Island-based school to work full-time and help mentor students there. 

Cardona was scheduled to make his way to Norfolk, Virginia later in the offseason and live there for about two months to participate in the Navy's Basic Division Officer Course, or "BDOC," which was required before he could report to his ship as a Surface Warfare Officer. From there, he was scheduled to travel to Bath, Maine, to work on the USS Zumwalt. 

"I'll get to work there and figure out a schedule that doesn't interfere with either of my jobs," Cardona said back in January following New England's loss to Denver in the AFC title game, "and hopefully be back on the field next year."

Cardona has long maintained that his job as an active member of the Navy is his top priority. Should his duties on the USS Zumwalt interfere with his long-snapping work with the Patriots, he could realistically sit out for the season. 

The Patriots signed veteran long-snapper Christian Yount earlier this offseason in a move that reminded those following the team that Cardona is not guaranteed to be available for 2016. Patriots defensive end Rob Ninkovich has long-snapped in the past and typically serves as the team's emergency snapper. 

Cardona was selected in the fifth round of the 2015 draft and played in all 16 regular-season games and two postseason games for the Patriots last season. 

Reese Witherspoon tries to recruit Malcolm Mitchell for her book club

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Reese Witherspoon tries to recruit Malcolm Mitchell for her book club

Malcolm Mitchell's on-the-field ability got him drafted in the fourth round by the Patriots last weekend, but his off-the-field story has garnered just as much -- if not more -- attention.

Mitchell's story, at this point, has been well-told. The 6-foot, 198-pound receiver arrived at the University of Georgia able to read at only a middle-school level. But while on campus his love of reading steadily grew, and he has since become a strong advocate for children's literacy. He's written his own children's book, The Magician's Hat, and he even joined a book club in the Athens, Georgia area made up of women about twice his age and older. 

Though his fellow book club members plan to make a visit to Gillette Stadium at some point this season to watch Mitchell play, he may be in the market for a new group now that he'll be moving to New England. 

Actress Reese Witherspoon was so inspired by Mitchell's story that she tried to recruit him to her own book club. Using Twitter to make the connection, Witherspoon happily engaged Mitchell in a back-and-forth where the two shared some of their favorite reading list suggestions.

Mitchell will soon be in Foxboro for Patriots rookie minicamp so he'll likely have to devote an inordinate amount of time to digesting his new playbook, but it seems like he now has a few other items on his to-do list thanks to his new pal.

Putting Gronkowski deal in context after Washington gives Reed extension

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Putting Gronkowski deal in context after Washington gives Reed extension

Rob Gronkowski's contract with the Patriots continues to look like a relative bargain as tight ends around the league haul in big money on a per-year basis. 

On Thursday, Washington announced that it had come to terms on a long-term contract extension with tight end Jordan Reed. The deal is reportedly worth $50 million over five years, including $22 million guaranteed. 

That's not a bad pay day for a player who has missed 14 games due to injury over the course of his first three seasons. When healthy, he's proven to be one of the most dynamic players at his position -- playing more as an over-sized wide receiver at 6-foot-3, 236 pounds than a true dual-threat tight end -- and now he's being paid as such. 

Reed's new contract allows us an opportunity to take another look at Gronkowski's deal, which has come into focus ever since he sent out a tweet in March that indicated he felt as though he was taking a pay cut when the Patriots picked up an option that would keep him in New England through 2019.

In the tweet, Gronkowski said he doesn't play for the money -- and according to him he hasn't spent a dime of what the Patriots have paid him since entering the league -- but it seemed to be relatively clear that the structure of his contract was on his mind when he took to social media.

Gronkowski signed a six-year, $54 million extension in 2012. By then he had proven how important he was to the Patriots offense, but he had a lengthy injury history going back to his college playing days. At the time, a deal that both paid him at the top of the market and gave him a measure of security was welcomed with open arms.

Now here we are in 2016, and the market has shifted. The salary cap has increased and many teams have opted to pay their tight ends bigger chunks of the pie, sliding Gronkowski down the list of highest-paid players at that position based on average annual value. 

Reed and Seattle's Jimmy Graham ($10 million) now top the list. Kansas City's Travis Kelce ($9.4 million) and Jacksonville's Julius Thomas ($9.2 million) also fall in ahead of Gronkowski.

Considering where those players stack up with Gronkowski in terms of production, the Patriots' All-Pro seems to have every right to furrow his brow when he looks at his contract by comparison. 

It could be a while though before Gronkowski sees any alterations to his income, however. First and foremost, he still had four years remaining on his contract as it's currently constructed. The Patriots front office gambled and won with the deal they gave him four years ago, and barring a holdout, they'd have little incentive to re-work it. 

There's also the matter of where Gronkowski's deal falls in terms of the team's list of priorities. He's at least still paid near the top of the market at his position.

There are several of his teammates -- corners Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, linebackers Jamie Collins and Dont'a Hightower, defensive end Jabaal Sheard and receiver Julian Edelman -- who are either a) about to become free agents after the 2016 or b) could make the argument that they're even more significantly underpaid than Gronkowski. Some fall under both categories. 

As great as Gronkowski has been, and as important as he is to his team's success, he may have to take his place in line when it comes to receiving a deal that more favorably reflects his value.