BOSTON (CBS) – The Patriots close out the regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, with plenty on the line when it comes to their playoff picture.

While they need some help, first and foremost the Patriots need a win over their division foe. They are 3-1 in their last four games, but aside from a blowout against the Texans, neither of the wins have been in a convincing fashion.

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The Patriots would love to put together a full effort in their final tune-up before the playoffs, and a snowy Gillette against a team from Florida may be just the answer.

Here are four things to watch for in Sunday’s regular season finale in Foxboro.

Fast Start

The last two games have seen the Patriots get down early and have to dig themselves out of a hole. Against San Francisco, it was a 31-3 hole they erased before falling 41-34 in the end. Last week in Jacksonville, the Jaguars put up a 10-0 lead before the Patriots came back for a 23-16 win.

While it’s nice to see their ability to come back, it’s not always the ideal situation to have a potential Super Bowl contender claw back against a sub-.500 team.

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The offense has been less-than efficient to start games as the regular season has drawn to a close, so look for them to try to put together those patented drives down the field — weather and playing-time permitting.

Protect Tom

The New England offensive line has had a stellar season protecting Tom Brady, but they’ve been letting opposing pass-rushers get to their quarterback more frequently as of late, meaning Brady has been spending extended time on his backside.

It all started when the calendar turned to December and the Patriots took their trip to Miami. Brady was sacked four times that Sunday afternoon, and hit another eight times.

Over their last four games, Brady has been sacked 11 times and hit another 32. That isn’t the kind of beating a team wants their QB to take in the season’s final month.

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Their opponents have had a lot to do with the increase in pressure on Brady, with the Dolphins ranking sixth in the NFL with 41 sacks and the 49ers tied for 12th with 36. But what is worrisome is the Jaguars, who rank last in the NFL in sacks, were able to apply the pressure with ease at moments last weekend. Making it even more puzzling is the fact they contained the Houston Texans in the middle of all of this, holding them to just one sack of Brady three weeks ago.

With the “real season” set to start next weekend (potentially in two weeks for the Patriots, but more on that in a bit), it will be important to keep Brady clean and upright on Sunday. The last thing he needs is Cameron Wake sending him to the ground in the season’s final week, which also brings us to our next point…

Stay Healthy

Back in 2009, the Patriots lost Wes Welker in a meaningless Week 17 matchup with the Houston Texans. While not having Welker wasn’t the only reason the Patriots season ended a weeks later at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, losing their #1 guy certainly didn’t help.

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The Patriots are dinged up enough as it is, with starting corners Aqib Talib (hip) and Alfonzo Dennard (hamstring), half of their offensive line, and their tight end duo all nursing ailments. If they aren’t healthy enough to play, which could be the case with Rob Gronkowski, they won’t play. But if they can, expect to see them out there; it’s just Bill Belichick’s way.

But while getting a win is always the most important goal for the Patriots, staying healthy will be key for Sunday, and moving forward.


The Patriots have said all week they will be focused on the Miami Dolphins on Sunday and not the scoreboard. But with the Texans and Colts playing at 1pm, they’ll have a good idea if a top-two seed in the AFC is in reach or out of their grasp.

If the Texans win, the Patriots will definitely be keeping an eye on the Broncos matchup with the Chiefs. If both the Texans and Broncos win, the best the Patriots can do is remain in the three-seed. They also have to pay attention to the Ravens-Bengals game at 1pm, as Ravens win and Patriots lose could bump them to the four-seed.

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All the Patriots can control on Sunday is what happens at Gillette, but they will be keeping tabs of what’s going on in Indy, Denver and Cincinnati. If there is no chance for them to move up, or down, in the seeding, we may see some starters find themselves with a front-row seat on the bench.

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Tune in to Patriots-Dolphins Sunday afternoon at 4:25pm on 98.5 The Sports Hub and WBZ-TV.  Pregame coverage begins on the Hub at 1pm with Patriots Preview, with three hours of post game coverage following the game. WBZ-TV’s coverage kicks off at 11:30am with Patriots GameDay, with Patriots 5th Quarter after the game on myTV38.