By STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — This year the Miami Dolphins really, truly, sincerely believed they could gain ground on the New England Patriots, and perhaps even catch their longtime AFC East nemesis.
Instead the yawning gap only grew.
The Dolphins (5-10) are assured of finishing last in the division for the first time since 2007. For the seventh year in a row, their season will end with the regular-season finale — which happens to be against New England on Sunday.
The Patriots (12-3) have already won their sixth consecutive division title and can clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoffs by beating Miami.
Here are things to know about the 101st meeting between the franchises:
BETWEEN FIRST AND WORST: Like the other teams in the AFC East, the Dolphins have been chasing the Patriots for most of the past decade-plus. New England has won 12 of the past 13 division titles, the exception being 2008, when Tom Brady tore his ACL and MCL in the season opener.
That’s the only time since 2001 that the Dolphins have made the playoffs. This week they’re 29th in the AP rankings, while the Patriots are No. 3.
Miami interim coach Dan Campbell said he’s glad the Patriots have something to play for Sunday, ensuring their best effort against the Dolphins.
"That may sound crazy," he said, "but yeah, I want what they have, and let’s see if we can challenge these guys. Let’s see if we can compete."
Campbell’s unlikely to be given any more time to catch New England. Next week the Dolphins are expected to embark on a search for their ninth coach since 2004.
New England has had one coach during that time: Bill Belichick. Don’t bother asking him about the Dolphins’ situation.
"I really appreciate the question, but honestly I don’t really care what they’re doing down there," Belichick said. "I’m just trying to get this team ready to play Sunday against a good team that has played a lot of good football here since coach Campbell took over."
PLAYOFF PICTURE: Last week the Patriots could have clinched the AFC’s No. 1 seed, ensuring home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but they lost in overtime to the New York Jets. They’ll still earn the top seed for the fourth time in six years if they win Sunday, or if Denver (11-4) loses to San Diego.
"You obviously love to always play at home," Brady said. "This game is really important for us because it’s a great goal for us to be the No. 1 seed. A lot goes into that, a lot of offseason work by a lot of players and coaches, the whole organization to get to this point. There’s only one team that gets the No. 1 seed. It’s great if you’re that team, because it means you’ve done things better than anybody else over the course of the season. We’ve put ourselves in a good position, and hopefully we can go finish strong."
TANNEHILL CRITIC: The latest tempest involving the dysfunctional Dolphins will linger into the offseason. Miko Grimes, the wife of cornerback Brent Grimes, ripped quarterback Ryan Tannehill on Twitter following the latest loss, saying he’s at the heart of the team’s problems.
In the aftermath, Tannehill and Brent Grimes said their relationship is fine. But the polarizing words from Grimes’ wife make it less likely he’ll return next season.
COMPLIMENTARY COACH: Credit Belichick with finding something nice to say about the Dolphins, who have lost five of their past six games.
"The emphasis of physical defense, controlling the line of scrimmage, attacking the line of scrimmage — I think they’ve done a great job of that," Belichick said. "They lead the league in negative rushing plays."
He’s right: Miami has stopped the opposing rusher for a loss 79 times, most in the NFL. But …
The Dolphins rank third-worst in the league in run defense, and that’s with the offseason addition of $114 million tackle Ndamukong Suh.
HEADS OR TAILS?: Also credit Belichick for making the coin toss worth watching Sunday. He opted to kick off in overtime last week, and the Jets scored quickly to win 26-20.
Against the Dolphins’ soft defense, chances are Belichick will take the ball.
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