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.

Belichick on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

Belichick on Long's sack: One of the best defensive plays of the year

It came against a rookie quarterback. It came against an offense that averages a league-worst 15.0 points per game. It came against an offense that has fewer yards than any other. 

Still there are signs that Bill Belichick is pretty pleased with where his defense is after beating the Rams 26-10 on Sunday. One came on Wednesday when Patriots.com published its "Belichick Breakdown" for a closer look at a handful of plays from the team's most recent win.

Belichick called his team's third-and-eight stop with about 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter "probably one of the best good, team defensive plays we've had all year."

The Patriots show a five-man front, but linebacker Kyle Van Noy feigns a rush only to drop into coverage.

"Van Noy in here does a good job on the rush," Belichick said, "and also on the coverage on the back. Just good team defense. Good pass coverage down the field. The quarterback really doesn't end up having a lot of time, but there's no one to throw it to right away."

Belichick noted that all four rushers -- Chris Long, Trey Flowers, Dont'a Hightower and Rob Ninkovich -- all are able to pressure Jared Goff on the play. Combined with strong coverage in the secondary, the Rams nver really had a chance.

Belichick said it looked like a "tidal wave" of defenders bearing down on the quarterback.

"Long wins here . . . on the inside spin," Belichick said, "and Trey Flowers and Hightower both win on the little twist game inside. Then that's Rob with good speed-to-power on [Rams tackle Rob] Havenstein on the outside. Four good rushers. Plus a fifth guy...Van Noy getting that two-for-one on the guard and the back.

"Good team defense. That's great to see. A lot of hard work an execution on the practice field to make that happen."

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

Harbaugh on Belichick: 'I feel like we have a good relationship'

FOXBORO -- They sounded like a couple of old pals. 

First it was Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who spoke of Ravens coach John Harbaugh during a conference call like one of his favorite fellow lacrosse dads.

"John and I saw a game a couple of years ago, a [Johns] Hopkins vs. Maryland game," Belichick said, adding that Harbaugh's love for the sport is just starting to blossom. "Yeah, I think John is seeing the light."

Belichick added that the two might be closer if they weren't competing so often, both in-season on the field and for free agents in the offseason. 

"As you know, we get into a situation like we’re in now where they have a good team, we have a good team, we’re playing a big game on Monday night," Belichick said. "Both teams are going to do everything they can to compete as hard as they can on Monday night. That’s what it is and that’s what we all signed up for. We all know that’s a part of it.

"When we’re not going head-to-head, which isn’t very often because we compete against each other in the offseason, we compete against each other to build our team and so forth, it just puts things in a little bit of a different situation."

During his press conference with reporters on Wednesday, Harbaugh echoed Belichick's sentiments. Belichick was famously one of Harbaugh's biggest supporters earlier in his career, calling the Ravens on Harbaugh's behalf when the franchise was looking for a new head coach. And if only they weren't so frequently competing against each other, they might be even closer, Harbaugh indicated. 

"I feel like we have a good relationship," Harbaugh said. "Like you said, we're probably not socializing that much, but I don't know how many coaches really do. We're all so busy. I'll see him or any coach at the Combine or at the owner's meetings, and we have a chance to talk. It's always good. I have a ton of respect for him. I really like him as a person. I think he's a great coach -- greatest coach of this generation. He's earned that title.

"And I study him. I've always studied him. I've always studied coach Belichick from when I first met him when I was an assistant at the University of Cincinnati, and he came in and just was great to be around.  [We have a] similar background with the special teams and that sort of thing. All of that kind of goes out the window when you compete against one another. It's like anything else, you want to win. I'm sure he feels the same way."

The recent history between their respective franchises is rife with emotion: There was Baltimore's irate reaction to Belichick's unusual formations in the AFC Divisional Round two seasons ago; there was the Ravens' supposed involvement in sparking Deflategate; and there was Harbaugh's subsequent denial. But Belichick and Harbaugh made it sound on Wednesday as if all's good between them.