THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Patriots are seeking that big completion

Focus is squarely on polishing off division

By Monique Walker
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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There are five of them now. Five losses hang over the Patriots for the second consecutive season. With four weeks to go, they have control of their postseason destiny, but there is little room for error.

The Dolphins’ 22-21 victory Sunday put added pressure on New England to close out the AFC East. The Patriots are 7-5 and 3-2 in the division, with losses to the Jets and Dolphins. They have a one-game lead over the Dolphins (6-6, 4-2), who have division losses against the Patriots and Bills, and the Jets (6-6, 2-4).

Not only did Sunday’s loss, in which the Dolphins engineered a second-half comeback, frustrate the Patriots, but its impact on the standings could be critical.

“Most definitely, because now it puts us in a tighter race, and now every game counts from here on out,’’ running back Laurence Maroney said. “Instead of us really controlling it and being in the driver’s seat, which we still are . . . now you can’t afford to lose games in December because you don’t have that many games to make [it] up. So it’s definitely always hard to lose a divisional game, especially this late in the season.’’

Last season, an early 38-13 home divisional loss to Miami ultimately doomed the Patriots’ playoff hopes, leaving them without a postseason berth for the first time since 2002.

But memories of that weren’t enough to help the Patriots Sunday.

Four of New England’s five losses have come by 7 points or fewer and all of the losses have been on the road. At this point, coach Bill Belichick said the Patriots’ focus is on hosting the Panthers (5-7) Sunday.

“I don’t think it really matters how anybody got there, whether we won seven and [lost] five or lost five and won seven or come up somewhere in between,’’ Belichick said. “That’s where we are. It’s a four-game season and right now it’s a one-game season with Carolina. We’ll turn our attention to them and put everything we have into this one and worry about next week next week.’’

After some of their more emotional defeats, the Patriots have preached leaving the result behind to focus on the upcoming opponent, but it seems those games may come back to haunt them.

The Dec. 20 game at Buffalo is even more important now because of Sunday’s loss. The Patriots had to capitalize on Bills miscues in the fourth quarter to come back to beat Buffalo, 25-24, in the season opener. The Bills have been inconsistent since but did manage a 31-14 home win against Miami two weeks ago.

The missed opportunities also mean any chance of a bye has become a long shot for the Patriots.

Indianapolis is undefeated, has clinched its division, and is in control of one of the two first-round byes. Cincinnati and San Diego are in the driver’s seat for the other. With four weeks left, there are plenty of scenarios to consider. Cincinnati is at Minnesota this week, and San Diego is at Dallas. The next week the Bengals and Chargers play each other, which could be for the other bye.

The last time the Patriots reached the Super Bowl without a bye was in 1985.

After hosting Carolina and traveling to Buffalo, the Patriots face Jacksonville and play at Houston. With their struggles away from Gillette Stadium, they are looking for any boost to get through the rest of the season and secure a playoff berth.

“Well, everybody wishes that we were better - we should be better than what we are right now,’’ Maroney said. “It’s all about finishing right now. That’s really what we’ve been having a problem with - finishing games, so our whole focus is just playing 60 minutes and finishing from here on out.’’

Monique Walker can be reached at mwalker@globe.com.

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