MIAMI — The Patriots have a chance Sunday to win their division for the ninth time in 10 years.
Wonder if they packed “AFC Division Champion” hats and T-shirts along with Bob and Jonathan Kraft’s lifeguard chairs?
Not to take anything away from the local gridders, but winning the AFC East is kind of a joke. It’s like the New York Times being named one of the top 10 newspapers in the country. It’s like Shaquille O’Neal winning a slam-dunk contest at Lincoln-Sudbury High School.
The Patriots are officially better than the Bills, Jets, and Dolphins . . . again.
Stop the presses.
Red Auerbach used to poke fun at the Bruins for hanging “Adams Division Champions”’ banners in the sacred rafters of the Old Garden. Those black-and-gold flags looked a little ridiculous next to the Celtics championship banners.
This is kind of like that. In his joyless pursuit of excellence, Bill Belichick drones on about “division games,’’ and we know it’s important in playoff seeding, but winning the AFC East in 2012 is like getting your name in the phone directory. You get rewarded just for showing up.
The Patriots have no competition in their lame-o division. They are about to clinch the AFC East with four games remaining. This would be like the Red Sox clinching the American League East on Aug. 15.
Does anyone give the Dolphins any chance today? Of course not. The Fins are 7½-point underdogs on their home field.
It’s a rookie quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) against Belichick. It’s a team that turns the ball over against a team that makes you turn the ball over. It’s a game the Patriots need to win if they hope to have an easier path to the Super Bowl in New Orleans.
No one thinks the Patriots can lose.
Belichick could probably pull a Gregg Popovich and leave Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez, and Jerod Mayo home. The Patriots would still win.
It’s weird to be this confident for any road game in the NFL. Some of us remember when the old Orange Bowl was a chamber of horrors for any Patriot team. Despite recent dominance, the Patriots are still only 14-33 lifetime in Miami,
But Sunday is no contest. This New England team is on a roll. The Patriots have scored 190 points in their last four games. They have won five in a row. They have forced 32 turnovers. They have turned the ball over only eight times. They have scored a league-high 407 points and are on a pace to score a league-record 592 points (which would erase the record of 589 held by . . . the 2007 Patriots). They haven’t played a game in 10 days. They are tanned, rested, and ready to dominate.
In typical lucky fashion, the tomato cans are lining up for the Patriots, which is great news for Robert (“you can call me Amos Alonzo or you can call me Hef, but please don’t call me Bob”) Kraft and the CBS executives who worship the Patriots.
There are no great teams in the NFL. Every team in the AFC is flawed. Houston is 10-1, but the Texans struggled to get past Jacksonville and Detroit in the last two weeks. Baltimore is 9-2, but the Ravens are playing shorthanded.
If you are a New England fan, nobody in the conference scares you. There is every reason to believe the Patriots can advance to the Super Bowl for the sixth time in the Belichick era.
But not even Jon Gruden could make Sunday’s game interesting. I’m waiting for Tannehill to throw the ball to the wrong team, or maybe run into the backside of one of his linemen, then cough up the football. It will happen. Every team in this division chokes at the sight of Belichick and his team.
The best thing about Patriots-Dolphins is the amazing number of connections to Central and Western Massachusetts on the Miami coaching staff.
The Dolphins are coached by Joe Philbin, who was born in Springfield, went to Worcester Academy and first worked at Worcester Polytech. Philbin worked at Holy Cross’s football camp in the 1980s, before he coached at Northeastern and Harvard (under Tim Murphy).
His English teacher at Worcester Academy was Mike Sherman, who went on to coach the Green Bay Packers from 2000-05. Sherman graduated from Algonquin Regional (like the late Mark Fidrych) and today serves as Philbin’s offensive coordinator.
The Dolphins defense is run by Kevin Coyle, an assistant at Holy Cross from 1982-90. Miami’s line coach is Jimmy Turner, who has Braintree, Boston College, and Northeastern on his résumé. The Dolphins secondary coach, Lou Anarumo, coached at Harvard.
Philbin’s big break came from Barry Gallup, a BC icon, who was coaching at Northeastern when Philbin needed a break.
“I was unemployed after going to Ohio University,’’ said Philbin. “We went a glamorous 0-11, and I didn’t have a job. I had four children, my wife was pregnant, and Barry was good enough to give me a job.’’
Sunday will probably feel like the bad old days at Ohio University. Tune in early. It’ll be over soon after the Patriots win the coin toss and defer.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.