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Not the leader of pack

Unlike last season, Patriots are in a race

By Mike Reiss
November 17, 2008
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The Patriots enter the 12th week of the regular season reminded of what a difference a year makes.

Last year at this time, the team was on the cusp of tying the NFL record for earliest clinching of a division title. The AFC East standings looked like this:

Patriots 10-0

Bills 5-5

Jets 2-8

Dolphins 0-10

It was a Patriot runaway, the team locking up the division crown in Week 12. Since the league expanded to the 16-game schedule in 1978, only the '07 Patriots, '85 Bears, '97 49ers, and '04 Eagles ever had clinched so early.

But clinch isn't part of the discussion this year. It's more about survival.

After the Dolphins beat the Raiders yesterday to improve to 6-4, the AFC East is one of just two divisions, along with the NFC East, in which all four teams have winning records - Jets (7-3), Dolphins (6-4), Patriots (6-4), and Bills (5-4). Buffalo hosts Cleveland tonight.

This is unfamiliar territory for the Patriots, who have won a record five straight AFC East titles, and six of the last seven. Since 2001, the club is 37-11 in regular-season division games, the best intradivision winning percentage of any team in the NFL.

While a loss in Miami this Sunday wouldn't necessarily eliminate the Patriots from title contention, it would be a striking blow to recover from when considering playoff tiebreaking procedures - head-to-head record is first, followed by winning percentage in the division, winning percentage in common games, and winning percentage in the conference.

The Dolphins romped over the Patriots, 38-13, in Week 3, so a win Sunday would deliver them an important tiebreaking edge if needed. That sets up a high-stakes showdown.

"There's no secret," Dolphins coach Tony Sparano said yesterday after his team's fourth straight win. "The Patriots know us. We know them. This is going to be a fun ballgame."

The Dolphins' convincing early-season win over the Patriots was sparked by the surprise use of the "Wildcat" package with running back Ronnie Brown lined up in the shotgun at quarterback. Expect to hear plenty of "Wildcat" talk this week.

"I think we're going to present it and I'm sure now that they've seen it a few times, they've been able to gameplan a little bit," Brown said yesterday.

"[But] I think we're going to have some different things [out of it]."

The Dolphins have the easiest remaining schedule (in terms of winning percentage) of all AFC East teams.

After hosting the Patriots, they visit the Rams (2-8) before playing the Bills in Toronto. They then host the 49ers (3-7) before wrapping up the year with road games vs. the Chiefs (1-9) and Jets.

The Patriots follow up their trip to Miami with a home date against the Steelers (7-3) before their back-to-back games at the Seahawks (2-8) and Raiders (2-8). Then comes the home finale against the Cardinals (7-3) before the season-ender at the Bills.

The Jets, riding the momentum of their overtime victory over the Patriots, visit the Titans (10-0), before a home date with the AFC West-leading Broncos (6-4).

They finish at the 49ers, home vs. the Bills, at the Seahawks, and then home against the Dolphins.

The Bills could find themselves left behind if they don't win tonight at home against the Browns. They finish at the Chiefs, host the 49ers and the Dolphins, visit the Jets and Broncos, before the home finale against the Patriots.

The final week of the regular season has all four AFC East teams playing in the division, so it might take until then before a winner is crowned.

All of which sets up an exciting race to the finish, a stark contrast to just one year ago.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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