Sopoaga honors the Chief. Veteran nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga, acquired at the trade deadline, has a signature fashion trend: basketball jerseys. He can be spotted almost daily inside the locker room wearing a different one, and today's pick had a familiar feel as he wore a Boston Celtics number 00 -- the jersey worn by Hall of Fame center Robert Parish. Sopagoa told me he has over 1,000 basketball jerseys in his collection but that some have been passed on to members of his family.
Talib readying for Wallace. Cornerback Aqib Talib has seen some of the NFL's best receivers in recent weeks, including Andre Johnson of the Texans and Josh Gordon of the Browns. He'll have his hands full again this week if he's tasked with slowing down Dolphins wideout Mike Wallace. "He's one of the top guys, man," Talib said of Wallace. "He's definitely one of the biggest deep threats in the league, and off that deep threat, you have to respect that so much, he can run all the rest of his routes. [He's a] dangerous receiver."
Playoffs not on Blount's mind. The playoffs are nothing new for many members of the Patriots organization, but LeGarrette Blount, acquired this past offseason, has never reached the postseason. Nonetheless, the potential to play into January isn't on his mind right now. "We've got to make sure we get there first, and it starts with Miami. As soon as we can go out there and hopefully get this win, then we can go from there."
Turning up the heat. The Patriots have practiced all week inside their practice bubble, one way to help simulate (or at least try) the heat they'll travel to this weekend in Miami, where temperatures are expected to be in the 80s. Danny Amendola said practicing indoors has been a big help, noting the warm temperature inside the bubble. Added Bill Belichick of preparing to play in the heat, "Whatever the playing conditions are, the situation is or the travel situation, we try to do the things that we feel are most advantageous for that set of circumstances, whatever it is, with our training staff, our strength and conditioning staff, from a nutrition standpoint, if it’s travel, our operations -- we do the things that we feel like would help us the most."
While it remains unclear if he will play in Week 15, it's a positive sign in his recovery.
Left tackle Nate Solder (concussion) practiced for the second consecutive day, though his official status for Sunday is not yet known.
The Patriots once again practiced indoors in an effort to acclimate to warmer temperatures, as it is expected to be in the 80s this Sunday in Miami.
The team practiced in shells and helmets for the third straight day.
Wide receiver Josh Boyce, quarterback Ryan Mallett, defensive tackle Marcus Forston and defensive back Kanorris Davis wore black uniforms as the practice players of the week for Week 14.
An official practice report with game statuses for the injured players will be released later this afternoon.
But on Friday morning, coach Bill Belichick reinforced that the team isn't looking that far ahead, quickly squashing a question about the outcome of the Denver game.
"There's nothing we can do about anything except what we do," he said. "I don't care about anybody else."
The Patriots have their work cut out for them, as they'll play two of three games on the road, both against teams with winning records and vying for a playoff spot.
Belichick's focus on the short term was echoed when he was posed the bigger-picture question of whether it might be advantageous for the development of reserve quarterback Ryan Mallett to get snaps in game action.
"Our job is to win games, it's not to do things to satisfy individual goals or needs or anything else," he replied. "My job is to win games; I represent the whole team, I don't represent individuals. You should talk to the player agents about that. That's not my job. My job is to win games and represent the entire football team."
Last week against the Browns, the Patriots were in their base package for 39 of 76 snaps. There were five snaps in the short-yardage package and 32 in sub packages.
That put the game in the minority in terms of the Patriots playing more snaps in the base defense than sub packages.
Overall, here are the numbers for the season (includes penalties):
Sub defense: 605 of 950 snaps (63.7 percent)
Base defense: 325 of 950 snaps (34.2 percent)
Short-yardage: 20 of 950 snaps (2.1 percent)
When looking ahead to Sunday's game against the Dolphins, it helps to revisit the Oct. 27 meeting between the teams.
The Patriots played it almost evenly between base (33) and sub (28) until the final two drives, when the Dolphins were in pass-first mode and the Patriots went exclusively to sub for the final 17 snaps. It makes sense to think we'll see more of the same Sunday.
Those names were highlighted prior to the first time they played the Dolphins, so we'll audible a bit this week and look at current members of the Patriots who have ties to the Dolphins.
Defensive end Rob Ninkovich. Before he became a blue-chip defensive end and captain for the Patriots, Ninkovich had a winding path that took him from New Orleans to Miami (and eventually back to New Orleans). He played in five games for the Dolphins, posting two tackles.
Guard Chris Barker. Barker was signed by the Dolphins as an undrafted free agent in May after a productive career at Nevada. He was released by the team on Aug. 31 and subsequently claimed by the Patriots. He's a reserve interior lineman now.
Special-teams coach Scott O'Brien. When current Alabama coach Nick Saban was with the Dolphins in the same capacity, he brought O'Brien aboard to serve as the football operations coordinator/assistant to the head coach. The two had worked together previously in Cleveland. O'Brien spent two seasons (2005-06) in Miami.
And a bonus connection: Defensive tackle A.J. Francis was claimed by the Patriots after being waived by the Dolphins at the end of training camp, and eventually wound up on the practice squad. The Dolphins recently re-signed Francis to their own active roster, as he's now back with the team he began his NFL career with.
The loss drops Denver to 11-3, a half-game better than New England (10-3). However, because the Patriots own the head-to-head tiebreaker, if they win out, they would get the top seed in the conference.
The Patriots have three games remaining, including two on the road. If they defeat Miami, Baltimore and Buffalo, they'll earn the AFC's top seed for the third time in four seasons.
Below is an updated look at the AFC playoff standings:
1. Denver: 11-3 (clinched playoff berth)
2. New England: 10-3
3. Cincinnati: 9-4
4. Indianapolis: 8-5 (clinched AFC South)
5. Kansas City: 10-3
6. Baltimore: 7-6
In the mix
7. Miami: 7-6
8. San Diego: 7-7
9. New York Jets 6-7
Every week leading into the New England Patriots' next game, ESPN NFL analyst Tedy Bruschi and ESPNBoston.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss preview the matchup. This week, it's a Sunday game against the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium in Miami (CBS 1 p.m. ET):
Mike: This is a déjà vu type situation, Tedy. Last year the Patriots traveled to South Florida with a chance to clinch the AFC East championship and they did it. Same thing this year.
Tedy: This would be the 11th time in Bill Belichick's 14 years as head coach that the Patriots capture the division title. We've talked about this several times in recent years -- this is a "hat and T-shirt game" and those hats and T-shirts mean something. It means you've accomplished something. It's right there on the hat and T-shirt -- "Division Champs." It didn't matter the year, when I got to put one of those on, it always felt good. You want the set of three -- division, conference, Super Bowl -- and it starts with this one.
Mike: This is also a big game for the Dolphins, who at 7-6 still have playoff hopes. Their final two games are at Buffalo and home against the Jets, so if they can get this one, it would greatly increase their chances.
Wide receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) was the only player not to take part in practice, while cornerback Marquice Cole (shin) was removed from the injury report entirely.
Quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder) was limited for the second straight day, as were cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Alfonzo Dennard (shoulder/knee) and Kyle Arrington (groin), as well as linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee).
Offensive tackle Marcus Cannon (ankle), who returned to practice this week after missing two straight games, was limited, as was tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, who has missed three straight games due to a knee injury.
Truth be told, the award is likely Peyton Manning's to lose at this point, as he's on pace to surpass Brady's record for most touchdown passes and Drew Brees' record for most passing yards in a single season, but there is still football left to be played.
The current players ahead of Brady are Manning, Brees, Eagles running back LeSean McCoy, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and Panthers quarterback Cam Newton.
While Brady's statistics this season aren't on par with the best of his career, the case could be made that he's been as valuable to the Patriots this season as nearly any other, as the team has endured through several critical injuries and moving parts on offense.
If we were to cast our own ballot, Manning would earn top billing, as he's been remarkable in his second season with the Broncos. Brady would come in higher up the ladder (perhaps behind only Brees), but all five of the players ahead of Brady on Graziano's watch have had tremendous seasons as well.
With three games left in the regular season, each of the players on his list has a chance to further state his case.
To read Graziano's full post, click here.
1. Projecting players who could receive more opportunities with Rob Gronkowski injured.
2. Rookie receiver Josh Boyce and the potential for him to play more after a solid performance against the Browns.
3. Tight end D.J. Williams signing a two-year contract, through 2014, and projecting needs at the position in the future.
4. Assessing the big picture with the Patriots and if their Super Bowl hopes are realistic.
5. Bill Belichick's coaching job -- his best ever?
6. Can running back Danny Woodhead, now in San Diego, help the Patriots tonight with a big effort against the Broncos?
It's a good sign for Solder, although if he is not able to play this Sunday, the team may be forced to move veteran Will Svitek into his place on the left side of the line. Svitek has been starting in place of Marcus Cannon at right tackle of late, though Cannon has practiced both days this week (ankle).
If Cannon is unable to play again this Sunday, the team may promote one of their practice squad offensive linemen to the active roster for insurance purposes.
Linebacker Brandon Spikes, who has been dealing with a knee injury, rode the stationary bike during individual position group drills.
The Patriots once again took to their indoor facility for practice as they prepare for heat and humidity down in Miami this Sunday.
The team practiced in helmets and shells.
The biggest game in the AFC East this season takes place Sunday in Miami, where the New England Patriots (10-3) will travel to face the Dolphins (7-6).
The Patriots are trying to secure one of the top two seeds in the conference and a first-round bye. New England also can clinch its fifth consecutive division title.
Miami, on the other hand, is one of four teams fighting for the AFC's final wild-card spot. The Dolphins have little margin for error and need another victory.
Who will prevail in this AFC East showdown? ESPN.com Patriots reporter Mike Reiss and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.
James Walker: Mike, this is our second go-around this year. But a lot has changed since New England's 27-17 victory in Week 8. The Dolphins have gone through an immense bullying and harassment controversy involving Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, and the Patriots lost Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski for the year with a knee injury.
Still, both teams have positioned themselves well down the stretch. The Dolphins are looking at this game to make a potential statement. They know a lot of outsiders nationally will see them as a serious playoff contender with a win over the Patriots. Miami spent the entire offseason trying to close the gap, and this is a good time for the Dolphins to prove they made progress.
Mike, the Patriots played without Gronkowski before. But New England doesn't have the proven weapons of previous years. How will the Patriots adjust?
Mike Reiss: Coaches and players have said the same thing -- there is no one player who can replace Gronkowski. He is too special and too unique of a talent. One thing that stood out since Gronkowski's return Oct. 20 was the diversity of personnel groupings the Patriots were calling on with success. Against the Steelers on Nov. 3, they scored six of their seven touchdowns out of different groupings. That is unlikely to be the case going forward, as they'll have to rely more on their receivers and running backs, while asking backup tight ends Matthew Mulligan, Michael Hoomanawanui and D.J. Williams to do their part.
I'm thinking big-picture here, James. From afar, it seemed like the Incognito-Martin incident could have brought the Dolphins down. So how have they been able to overcome it?
Walker: The Dolphins showed two key characteristics: character and resilience. Miami could have packed it in, especially after losing to the then-winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on "Monday Night Football." But since then, Miami has won three of four, and I think a lot of credit goes to Joe Philbin. The second-year head coach has never wavered through tough times. He remained the same person to his players and never pushed the panic button. That even-keeled mindset permeated the Dolphins' locker room and kept them focused.
Mike, how do you explain New England's penchant for second-half comebacks? Miami got a taste of that in October and is trying to avoid the same result this week.
Reiss: Much like Philbin, whose personal resilience was evident to those who followed his coaching career as he made his way up the ranks in the New England region, this Patriots team has something special about it. It is probably their most admirable quality -- if you're going to beat them, it is going to have to be a knockout. They fight you and keep scrapping for the full 60 minutes. What we saw last Sunday against the Browns was the equivalent of the boxing referee standing over them and giving them a 10 count as they were down on the mat: 5 ... 6 ... 7 ... 8 ... 9 ... 9.5 ... and at the last moment they spring back up and record the improbable victory. It's a dangerous way to live. It's also maddening at times for the team's fans to watch them play so poorly early in games. But they have good leadership, good depth and, as usual, they're in the playoff hunt.
The Patriots' defense has been vulnerable in recent weeks. What do you see from the Dolphins' offense that might allow them to exploit that defense and record the win?
Walker: Well, the Dolphins are running as well as they have all season. Miami gained a season-high 181 rushing yards in last week's win over the Steelers. The ground game hasn't become an area of strength until recently. Miami should have some success running against New England's 31st-ranked run defense. The Dolphins' passing game also is more efficient. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is playing solid down the stretch and spreading the ball around. Miami is on pace to have three players -- tight end Charles Clay and receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline -- get 70 or more catches this year. That has made it hard on opponents to key on one player. Clay, in particular, has come on strong as of late. He has developed into not only a good threat in the middle of the field, but also in the red zone. Clay leads Miami with seven total touchdowns (six receiving, one rushing).
Finally, Mike, the Patriots have had their struggles on the road this year. All three losses, to the Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets and Carolina Panthers, have been away from Gillette Stadium. Which Patriots team do you expect to show up in Miami on Sunday?
Reiss: The Patriots were still in all three of those games, with a chance to win each right up until the end, so that's where I would start. We should probably expect a close game. Slow starts have been an issue for the Patriots and many wonder when that will finally catch up to them, and I could see Miami being a team that capitalizes on that. These are two of the NFL's least-penalized teams, Miami is fighting to keep its playoff hopes alive, and the Patriots are depleted and recalibrating after the loss of Gronkowski. Turnovers will be the difference-maker if the Patriots are to win it.