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.

Brady's goal vs. Lions: Feel the rhythm of the game

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Brady's goal vs. Lions: Feel the rhythm of the game

FOXBORO -- Tom Brady's not looking to see a specific number of snaps or throw a certain number of passes. He just wants to get into a rhythm. 

That's his goal for Friday's game in Detroit. It's a pretty abstract concept, a football game's rhythm. Yet it's one of the things quarterbacks reference all the time. There's a pacing, a feeling, that takes some time to adjust to behind center. When you have it, you know it. When you don't, you're not exactly sure how long it might take.

For Brady, someone who missed the first month of last season and came back to perform at an MVP level, it probably doesn't take all that long. But the process still exists, and he's looking forward to going through it again later this week. 

"For me, it’s just feeling the rhythm of the game, and it’s different than practice," he said Wednesday. "The rhythm of practice is very different, and the only way to simulate the game is to play. I can draw on a lot of experience, but it’s nice to get out there and actually do it. I mean, it was fun being out there last week. It will be, obviously, fun being out there this week, but you’re just trying to build up for one game, the start of the season in September. Everything is building toward that."

What's particularly helpful in these preseason games, Brady explained, is getting out there with new teammates to work together at a different pace. This year in particular, there are plenty of new faces surrounding Brady in the huddle between receiver Brandin Cooks, running back Rex Burkhead, tight end Dwayne Allen and others.

"Those snaps that you’re taking with new players are really important," Brady said. "It was nice to get Rex a touchdown pass [in Houston], and just for him to feel what it’s like for all us to look at another guy’s eyes in the huddle during the course of a game and saying, ‘Look, this is where we’re at. This is football. This is exactly what we’re going to be doing when the season kicks off on Thursday night.' "

Belichick on bubble players stressing: 'That's what you sign up for'

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Belichick on bubble players stressing: 'That's what you sign up for'

FOXBORO -- Even though the games don't count yet, this is a stressful time of year for NFL teams. 

It's one thing to be a coach. There are decisions to make in terms of how your team will be built. There are preparations to make for Week 1, but there are also still two preseason games ahead.  That's a good number of balls in the air, or "plates spinning," as Tom E. Curran likes to say.

But to be a player, particularly a player on the fringes of what will be the 53-man active roster, is an entirely different ordeal. Veteran players could see their careers end soon. Young players could be forced to uproot and try to start anew somewhere else. Livelihoods are on the line.

There's stress. 

Bill Belichick was asked in a press conference on Wednesday how important it is for players on the bubble not to press too much at this time of year despite that stress. But as Belichick put it, stress is simply part of the job. It's unavoidable no matter what time of year it is, which means that in a way, playing and performing under stress now might be a good indicator of how certain players will handle it down the line. 

Here's Belichick's answer in full: 

"I think that's a good question. It's a fair question," Belichick started. "But this is the National Football League, and there's pressure every week. There's pressure this week. There's going to be pressure in September. There's going to be pressure in October. There's going to be pressure in November. We're going to be under stress all year. Every week. And we're going to be under stress out on the field every week against every opponent. Playing in the National Football League that's what you sign up for. If you're looking for vacation weeks and weeks off or we play some Division 4 team, all that, that doesn't happen in this league. There's stress every week.

"There's stress in training camp. Yeah. There's plenty of it. There's stress on the coaching staff to get the team ready, to pick the right players. There's stress on each player to establish his role, or make the team, or play for playing time, whatever it is. There's stress on everybody, and there's stress on every team. We're not in any different situation than any other team in the league is. Every player on every one of those teams is having the same thoughts that our players are having, I'm sure. One way or the other. Either the guys who think they're on the team are trying to get ready to have a good year, or there are a lot of guys who aren't sure whether they're on or they're not or what they're role is. And there are a lot of coaches who don't know the answer to that question either. We're trying to figure it out. There is no right answer at this point. It's still a process.

"But there's pressure every week in this league so if there's too much pressure in August, there's probably going to be too much pressure in November. This is the world we live in. If you tell me a week in the National Football League when there's not pressure, I don't know when that is. Every week's a tough week. Every week's a good team. Good players, good coaches who work hard and have a lot of good things you gotta deal with. And if you don't deal with them, you're not winning that week. That's the NFL."