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Sports

Dolphins have been changing for the better

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed some good opportunities against the Patriots (especially against Aqib Talib), but he has played better the last two weeks.

AP/File

Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed some good opportunities against the Patriots (especially against Aqib Talib), but he has played better the last two weeks.

The Patriots just saw the Dolphins Dec. 2, but much has changed for their AFC East rivals in a short amount of time.

The Dolphins’ 23-16 loss to the Patriots was Miami’s fourth in five games. Since then, the Dolphins are 2-1, with the loss being a 14-point decision to the 49ers, who later beat the Patriots. The Dolphins have won two straight by a combined 48-13 against the Jaguars and Bills.

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The Dolphins need a victory in the season finale to finish .500 for just the second time in the past seven seasons, so expect them to be very game Sunday at Gillette Stadium.

The other changes have to do with personnel. The Dolphins have eight — and possibly nine — significant lineup changes from the starting group that faced the Patriots.

The two biggest potential absences are standout cornerback Sean Smith, who left with an apparent serious knee injury against the Bills, and slot receiver Davone Bess, who has missed two games with a back injury.

Smith reportedly sustained just a bruise in his left knee and could still face the Patriots, though he didn’t practice Wednesday. Neither did the other starting cornerback, Nolan Carroll (left knee). Bryan McGann, who was signed Nov. 6, replaced Smith in base defense and was paired with Dimitri Patterson, who was claimed Dec. 23 after being waived by the Browns.

Marlon Moore has started for Bess, who is second on the team with 61 receptions but had just one against the Patriots.

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Other lineup changes since the last meeting: Jonathan Martin at left tackle for Jake Long (injured vs. Patriots), Nate­ Garner for Martin at right tackle, Jeron Mastrud in the H-back role for Charles Clay (injured reserve), Jason Trusnik for Koa Misi (ankle) at strong-side linebacker, former Chargers kicker Nate Kaeding for Dan Carpenter (IR), and fourth-round pick Lamar Miller for Daniel Thomas (IR) at backup/short-yardage running back.

Other observations of note regarding the Dolphins:

Offense

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill missed some good opportunities against the Patriots (especially against Aqib Talib), but he has played better the last two weeks. His statistics against Jacksonville (season highs with 78.6 percent completion rate and 123.2 passer rating) were certainly impressive, but his maturation in the pocket against pressure has particularly stood out. He also is making better decisions with the ball, and hasn’t thrown an interception in four games. Tannehill completed just 13 of 25 passes for 130 yards against the Bills, but those numbers lie. A handful of the incompletions were because of drops, throwaways, and being hit, so he was efficient. The Dolphins have also found a way to better utilize Tannehill’s athletic ability with more read option, which they used once on Tannehill’s touchdown against Rob Ninkovich . . . Running back Reggie Bush is 40 yards shy of his second straight 1,000-yard season, and Miller’s 73 yards on 10 carries against the Bills were impressive. Bush also had four catches for 42 yards against the Bills; he didn’t have one against the Patriots . . . The offensive line has improved since the tackles have settled in after the injury to Long. Left guard Richie Incognito has stood out, but the entire interior line was dominated by the Patriots in the first matchup.

Defense

Not a ton has changed on this side of the ball, and the big matchup will once again be between outside linebacker Cameron Wake and Patriots right tackle Sebastian Vollmer. Wake dominated Vollmer the first time around, especially early. Wake accounted for two sacks, a hurry, knockdown, and stuffed run, all against Vollmer. The Dolphins had four sacks, five hurries, and five knockdowns total. Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle was able to generate pressure against Tom Brady on 31.1 percent of his dropbacks (fourth-highest percentage this season) with blitzes just 11.1 percent of the time (eighth-highest).

Greg A. Bedard can be reached at gbedard@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @gregabedard.

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