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Patriots keeping focused

They eye Dolphins, hope to stay even with Steelers

MIAMI -- Here we go again.

Another week in which the Patriots, at 12-1, have to keep up with the Steelers, who improved to 13-1 with their 33-30 barnburner over the New York Giants Saturday.

The race to the finish in the AFC for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs between these two smash-mouth teams, who seem to win every time they step onto the field, has been a great one.

The Steelers probably didn't expect to be involved in such a knock-down, drag-out game with the Giants. Once again rookie quarterback Ben Roethlisberger didn't wilt under the late-game pressure and made plays for Pittsburgh when he had to.

When the Patriots face the Dolphins tonight, they will be in a place where until recently it was difficult for them to play, and like Steelers-Giants, it will be a good team vs. a bad team.

The Giants are better than the Dolphins, but every bad team has its "Super Bowl" during the season, and who knows whether tonight's game will be that to the Miami veterans, who had been used to seasons of double-digit wins.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick often says there's no carryover from year to year, but he's certainly pointed out how badly the Patriots have played here in recent times. In fact, quarterback Tom Brady has had some of his worst games here, where he's 1-2. In seven games against the Dolphins, Brady has averaged only 168 yards with eight touchdowns, and even in a 24-10 win over the Dolphins Oct. 10 at Gillette Stadium, he threw for only 76 yards, although he had two touchdowns.

This matchup might be a good argument as to why the television networks want a choice of games late in the season. Suffice to say, this wouldn't be the pick.

But that's not to rule out that the Dolphins could make it competitive. They still have star players such as defensive end Jason Taylor, and an underachieving but talented secondary. But even with the Patriots still sporting a makeshift secondary, it would be amazing if quarterback A.J. Feeley can find the gaps the way Carson Palmer did last week for the Bengals, who netted 478 offensive yards.

Some of the issues surrounding the game:

* Tyrone Poole: The Patriots did well without him over a seven-game span, but it was thought Poole would strengthen his knee and return to fulltime duty by the end of the regular season. He's gone on injured reserve, because according to sources, Poole needed about three more weeks to see if he could get back to 100 percent, and the team couldn't wait.

The Patriots will go with the players they have, hoping Asante Samuel, Eugene Wilson, Randall Gay, Earthwind Moreland, and Troy Brown can keep improving and not allow the big yardage they did last week. Don't forget, Gay and Samuel aren't 100 percent, either, with shoulder injuries.

Brown could see a more expanded role against Miami, a good place to get more experience covering the slot receiver. Teams have begun to pick on Brown the past few weeks, but his excellent hands also have allowed him to make plays.

* Vince Wilfork: This is a big night for the rookie nose tackle. He played at the University of Miami and one would expect him to have extra adrenaline flowing, though he did his best to downplay it during the week.

"It doesn't matter at all," he said. "I'm from here, but this is not a big deal and I'm not making it a big deal. I'm where I want to be as a pro."

Wilfork has been solid, and along with Richard Seymour and Ty Warren, the Patriots may give the Dolphins' line numerous problems and force Feeley into some bad throws.

* No heat: The Patriots won't have to worry about intense heat, as they do when they play in Miami in September or October. Temperatures are expected to be in the high 50s by game time, perfect football weather.

* Corey Dillon: The Patriots running back will achieve his next incentive, worth $500,000, if he gains 41 yards and makes it to 1,350. That would give him $1.5 million of a maximum $2.25 million in incentives. With Dolphins middle linebacker Zach Thomas likely out and fellow linebacker Eddie Moore doubtful, Dillon could have a big game.

* Bethel Johnson: The Patriots' speedy returner is out with a sore thigh. This could greatly affect the Patriots' field position, as Johnson is always a threat to break one.

* The Nick Saban Watch: To Dolphins fans, this is far more interesting than the game itself. The Dolphins went after Saban before interviewing a minority candidate, which they must do under the NFL's diversity rule. Now Miami says it also will interview former Raiders coach Art Shell, who did a decent job in Oakland. Miami is in love with Saban, another popular and successful college coach who will be asked to turn an NFL program around. Despite the failings of college coaches Butch Davis and Steve Spurrier when they went to the pros, a poll conducted by the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel showed more than 70 percent in favor of LSU's Saban replacing interim coach Jim Bates, who took over when Dave Wannstedt resigned. If Saban is hired, Bates likely will stay on as defensive coordinator, as they are old friends. 

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