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.

Patriots third-rounder Rivers takes winding road to Foxboro

Patriots third-rounder Rivers takes winding road to Foxboro

FOXBORO -- There was not much room for debate as far as this was concerned: Derek Rivers was among the most physically-impressive defensive ends in a draft class loaded at that position.

That begs the question, then, how did the Patriots have the opportunity to draft Rivers at No. 83 overall in the third round? 

The short answer is that he went to Youngstown State, an FCS school, and those players usually don't come off the board early.

But that answer only leads to more questions, as in, how did someone with the athleticism Rivers possesses end up at Youngstown in the first place? And why did he stay?

At 6-foot-4, 248 pounds Rivers was among the top defensive line performers at this year's combine. He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.61 seconds, which was good for fourth at his position group. His 30 bench reps of 225 pounds were also fourth among defensive linemen, and tied him with Solomon Thomas (the No. 3 overall pick who weighed 273 pounds in Indy).

Rivers also checked in with the ninth-best broad jump for defensive linemen (123 inches), the fifth-best vertical (35 inches), and the third-best three-cone drill (6.94 seconds).

Those kinds of athletes don't typically end up at Youngstown State. They usually end up a couple hundred miles down the road in Columbus.

"Out of high school, I was a non-qualifier, so I didn’t get my SATs, and then I was just a late bloomer," said Rivers, who was 182 pounds near the end of his sophomore year in high school, according to Vindy.com. "I wasn’t very heavily recruited so I went to Fork Union [Military Academy] and then Youngstown came and they offered me. I was just ready to play ball."

Rivers may have been able to head to a bigger program after emerging for Youngstown as a sophomore with 14 sacks (fifth in FCS that year) and 17 tackles for a loss. But he stayed, and he continued to dominate. As a junior he had eight sacks and 15.5 tackles for loss. As a senior he had 14 sacks and a whopping 19.5 tackles for loss.

Feeling devoted to the program that gave him a chance, Rivers remained and had the opportunity to work under coach Bo Pelini for each of the last two seasons. 

Pelini, a former Nebraska head coach and former Patriots linebackers coach under Pete Carroll (1997-99), may have in a roundabout way helped Rivers land in New England. Pelini and Bill Belichick seem to have a good relationship -- Belichick is now coaching two of Pelini's former players in Vincent Valentine and Rex Burkhead -- and Belichick referenced the coaching Rivers received under Pelini as one of the reasons why Rivers is ready for the NFL. 

When asked about Pelini during his conference call with Patriots reporters, Rivers seemed to agree. 

"Bo was awesome, man. He was like another father to me as far as when he came to Youngstown," Rivers said. "I mean, he took our team to another level. Just the little things that he focused on as far as accountability, doing all the little things right. I mean, those were the things that Bo emphasized, and those were the things that Bo instilled in me."

Rivers added: "The first thing that Coach Bo said in his first meeting with us when he got to Youngstown was that he was like, ‘What you do off the field is going to reflect on how you play on the field.’

"I was a non-qualifier in high school. At Youngstown, I’m probably going to graduate with a 3.0, and it makes sense. If you’re lazy off the field, you’re going to be lazy on the field. If you miss assignments in class, you may miss assignments on the field, so they translate."

Even though even though he's not coming from Alabama or Florida State, even though he took a bit of a circuitous route to get there, in his first night with the team Rivers sure sounded like someone who's been on the fast track to Foxboro for years.

Belichick not concerned about competition level Rivers faced at Youngstown

Belichick not concerned about competition level Rivers faced at Youngstown

FOXBORO -- Derek Rivers dominated the FBS competition he went up against at Youngstown State, but Bill Belichick didn't seem overly concerned about the jump in competition the 6-foot-4, 248-pounder will face at the NFL level.

Taken with the No. 83 overall selection in the third round of the NFL Draft on Friday night, Rivers was a first-team All-Missouri Valley Football Conference selection each of the past three years. He recorded 14 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season for the Penguins.

After making two third-round selections on Friday -- the Patriots also took Troy offensive tackle Antonio Garcia -- Belichick told reporters that Rivers had success at this year's Senior Bowl, where he recorded one sack, one quarterback hit and one hurry in 14 pass-rush snaps, according to Pro Football Focus.

PFF, which had exclusive access to Senior Bowl practice film, did not consider Rivers to be a standout performer during the week of one-on-ones at practices. His strong showing in the game, however, may have given him a bump in the eyes of league evaluators.

"[He] played competitively in the all-star games and in a good program there with Coach [Bo] Pelini, who we know very well," Belichick said of Rivers. "Bo does a great job with his players and his team. Derek’s been in a good system, has been well-coached. Even though he’s from a smaller school we’ll see what he can do for himself here, as well, when all is said and done."

Belichick added: "I mean he’s been in a good program. Coach Pelini has been an NFL coach, been a Division 1 head coach. They were in a championship game there at Youngstown. He does a great job. Visiting with Derek last week, or two weeks ago – whenever it was when he was in here – he’s obviously been in a good program. He’s been well-coached, and sure, it’s a big adjustment for him or anybody else moving to the National Football League. I think he’s been in a solid program. We’ll see how it goes."

Pelini was the head coach at Nebraska from 2008-14 and overlapped there with a handful of current and former Patriots, including Vincent Valentine, Rex Burkhead and Alfonzo Dennard.

The athleticism Rivers showed at this year's combine should also help him make the transition from FCS to the NFL. He was among the top defensive linemen in this year's class when it came to his results in the 40-yard dash (4.61 seconds), bench press (30 reps), vertical (35 inches) and three-cone (6.94 seconds).