FOXBOROUGH — The first time the Patriots faced Miami, the Dolphins were sliding, and the 27-17 loss at Gillette Stadium Oct. 27 marked their fourth straight defeat after opening the season 3-0.
Since then, the Dolphins have won four of six, putting themselves in the thick of the competition for the second AFC wild-card spot — Baltimore is also 7-6, but the Ravens won their head-to-head meeting.
Miami has been able to right the ship despite the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation, which exploded when the team returned from the loss to the Patriots, and the accompanying madness that followed, with reporters descending on South Florida in droves to discuss bullying and race, and how much the coaching staff knew about the relationship of the two offensive linemen.
When coach Joe Philbin was asked to assess his performance in this season of difficulties, the Massachusetts native said there’s no time to reflect.
“We ask the players every day when they come into the building to give their best effort, be professional and focus on the job they have,” the second-year coach said. “We ask the same thing from the staff. We have to do the same thing. Everybody has a professional life. Everybody has a personal life. There are a lot of things that happen in the real world.
“When we come into the building, we all kind of have to buckle our chinstraps and go to work. We’ve got a great staff here of people, not just coaches, but people in the organization who make a lot of sacrifices. It’s a team sticking together.”
Philbin certainly knows about working through difficult circumstances. In January 2012, when he was still the Packers’ offensive coordinator but just a couple of weeks before he’d get the job in Miami, Philbin’s son, Michael, died after falling through ice and drowning in the frigid Fox River near Green Bay.
Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said there has not been “some miraculous change” in Miami that’s led to their turnaround.
“The situation, really, was not in the locker room. The individuals were outside the locker room; they were not on the team,” Hartline said of Incognito and Martin. “The biggest hole that we had wasn’t any ‘distractions’, it was the fact that we were missing two starting offensive linemen and if that happens to any team in the NFL it can cause some rifts.
“But we had that and guys were able to step up and make some plays that kept us in games . . . So it was just some growing pains, really. In the end, we have grown through it and we are looking forward to these next three game opportunities. New England always demands your full attention, so to think of anything other than that would be doing ourselves a disservice.”
Back in formation
Left tackle Nate Solder returned to practice Thursday, with the Patriots reporting he had limited participation. Solder sat out Wednesday because of a concussion, the first practice he’s missed this season.
Receiver Aaron Dobson (foot) was the only player to not take part in practice, though a total of 11 players were limited. In addition to Solder, that list included quarterback Tom Brady (right shoulder), cornerbacks Aqib Talib (hip), Kyle Arrington (groin), and Alfonzo Dennard (knee/shoulder), safety Steve Gregory (finger), offensive tackles Marcus Cannon (ankle) and Will Svitek (ankle), tight end Michael Hoomanawanui (knee), receiver Kenbrell Thompkins (hip), and linebacker Brandon Spikes (knee).
New England removed cornerback Marquice Cole (shin) from the list, and the Dolphins removed center Mike Pouncey (not injury related), who did not practice on Wednesday, from their injury report.
Pouncey reportedly was in Massachusetts this week to testify before a grand jury in the case against his former Florida teammate/roommate Aaron Hernandez.
State Police subpoenaed Pouncey near the Dolphins’ team bus at Gillette Stadium Oct. 27.
Cole has been doing something nice for others every day this month, simply as a way of giving back.
The 30-year-old has done some things through social media, giving away game tickets last weekend and offering tickets to this Sunday’s game in Miami, and also announcing he was going to see a movie, and anyone that showed up got in on him.
But a couple of times he’s done things unannounced, such as paying for everyone’s meal at Chipotle, or leaving an exorbitant tip for a burger.
The late Myra Kraft would be proud.
If the Patriots win Sunday, it would clinch the team’s 11th AFC East title under Bill Belichick. The coach would move into a tie with legendary former Dolphins coach Don Shula for most division titles as a head coach since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Shula won 11 in his 26 years as Dolphins coach. He also won three division titles coaching the Baltimore Colts from 1963-69 . . . Sunday’s game also has another potential New England-Miami connection in the record book: If the Patriots win, Brady will tie Dan Marino with 147 wins, which is fourth-most in league history for a starting quarterback.Shalise Manza Young can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shalisemyoung.