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Patriots squander chance to ensure No. 1 seed

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- This isn’t the way the New England Patriots wanted to go into the playoffs.

With a chance to ensure they’d be the No. 1 seed and have home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs by beating the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, they turned in an uninspiring, lackluster performance in a 20-10 loss at Sun Life Stadium.

The only way for the Patriots (12-4) to earn the top spot is if the 11-4 Denver Broncos lose to the visiting San Diego Chargers (4-11) on Sunday afternoon.

If the Broncos win, they’ll be the No. 1 seed and the Patriots No. 2.

It was a strange approach Sunday for the Patriots, who totaled 21 rushes in the first half, with just five pass attempts. The five pass attempts were the fewest that Tom Brady, as a starter, has attempted in a half over his 16-year career.

It was almost as if they were playing not to get hurt at times, instead of with the urgency to earn the No. 1 seed.

If not injuries, why so conservative?

Part of it was that the team’s offensive line was a patched-together group, and it clearly struggled in pass protection. Brady was hit often and at one point early in the second quarter, needed to have his right ankle retaped when his leg took a direct hit from Ndamukong Suh.

There was also probably some desire by the Patriots to get veteran Steven Jackson more integrated into the mix. One week after playing nine snaps in his debut, Jackson totaled 25 against the Dolphins and ran hard. He looks like he’s primed to be the team’s top power runner in the playoffs.

The Patriots are a banged-up team that left six injured players back at home (defensive end Chandler Jones, linebacker Dont'a Hightower and offensive tackle Sebastian Vollmer among them), and there is internal optimism that most of those players, if not all, will be back for the playoffs. So perhaps the picture will look different come the playoffs.

Does momentum matter?

We’re about to find out because the Patriots have not played their best football in recent weeks, which is uncharacteristic for them at this time of year.