MIAMI (AP) — Spoiler alert: The Miami Dolphins can finally have a say in the playoff race.
A roster dismantling took the Dolphins out of contention before the season started, and their past three games have been against fellow also-rans. But the stakes will be considerable Sunday when they end the season at New England, which can clinch the AFC’s No. 2 seed with a victory.
“They’re a very good team,” Miami coach Brian Flores said Monday. “It’ll be a major challenge for us. We’ll have to play well to give ourselves a chance.”
An upset would be monumental, and New England (12-3) is a 15-point favorite. Miami (4-11) has lost 10 consecutive games in Foxborough by an average score of 33-13.
But the Dolphins have nothing to lose, and they’re not quite the pushovers they were early in the season, when a 43-0 loss to New England in Week 2 helped propel them to an 0-7 start.
Miami has since gone 4-4 under their rookie coach, including Sunday’s wild 38-35 overtime victory against Cincinnati.
“The Dolphins have certainly gotten a better handle on the system,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “We saw them a long time ago. That’s a lot of water under the bridge. The second half of the season they’ve played very competitively against a lot of good teams. This will be a big challenge for us this week.”
The Dolphins’ offensive line has had a succession of tryouts this season, which is why Miami is tied for last in the NFL in sacks allowed and ranks last in yards rushing.
But the blocking has been better lately, and Miami totaled a season-high 502 yards against Cincinnati.
“There are still some things we’ve got to clear up,” center and captain Daniel Kilgore said. “But for the most part, it was a step forward compared with what we’ve done in the past. We’ll continue to work. We’ve got one more week, and we’ll keep doing it.”
WHAT NEEDS HELP
The Dolphins haven’t had much experience with holding a big lead, and they couldn’t do it against the abysmal Bengals. Miami blew a 35-12 lead in the final 6:11 of regulation, and gave up 16 points in the last 29 seconds.
To the Dolphins’ credit, they regrouped. The defense forced two three-and-outs in overtime before Miami mounted a 51-yard drive for the winning field goal.
“Our mistakes were what got us in that predicament,” said receiver DeVante Parker, who had another big game. “But we were able to fight hard and pull out the win some way, somehow.”
First-round pick Christian Wilkins has blossomed in recent weeks at defensive tackle. On Sunday he became just the third NFL player in the past decade to catch a touchdown pass and make a sack in the same game.
Wilkins also had a TD catch at Clemson.
“I’m a D-linemen at heart, so the sacks will always trump everything,” Wilkins said. “I love touchdowns, and hopefully this will be the first of many in my career, but the sack was definitely the icing on the cake. And the win was the biggest thing.”
The victory eliminated the Dolphins from the race for the No. 1 draft choice. They’re most likely to have the fifth pick, which could still give them a shot at the second-best quarterback in the draft.
The Dolphins have used an NFL-record 83 players, and that number could grow if they need more replacements this week. CB Jomal Wiltz (shoulder), WR Allen Hurns (shoulder), LB Vince Biegel (elbow) and RB Myles Gaskin (left ankle) all left Sunday’s game with injuries.
After Ryan Fitzpatrick threw for a career-high 419 yards in the team’s final home game, he and his wife and their seven children posed for photos. Fitzpatrick, 37, wanted to commemorate the family moment on the field, mindful his career is winding down.
“At the end of the season, it’s always nice to have them down there to experience it,” he said. “You just never know in this business.”
Fitzpatrick is under contract for next year hasn’t said whether he wants to play another season.
The focus will soon turn to the Dolphins’ offseason, and it will be busy. They’ve been adding draft picks and creating salary cap space in anticipation of making major upgrades.