New England Patriots defensive tackle Vince Wilfork (75) talks with defensive lineman Marcus Forston (98) and defensive end Justin Francis (94) on Wednesday during a practice in Foxborough, Mass.
MIAMI — The Miami Dolphins had just completed their most recent victory when offensive coordinator Mike Sherman approached rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill to offer congratulations — and some stern advice.
In the midst of the locker room celebration, Sherman reminded Tannehill about an ill-advised pass that had been intercepted in the end zone, nearly costing Miami the game.
“It was pretty jovial, but I still was able to pretty much make my point,” Sherman said. “I doubt very much you’ll see that pass again.”
One turnover at a time, the Dolphins are desperately trying to solve a long-standing problem. This season they’re tied for fifth worst in the NFL in turnover differential at minus-10, which is especially worrisome going into Sunday’s game against high-scoring New England.
The Patriots (8-3) lead the NFL in turnover differential with a whopping plus-24, a big reason they’re on the verge of clinching their fourth consecutive AFC East title. The Dolphins (5-6) would help their wild-card chances with a win, but they must figure out a way to slow down Tom Brady.
“I’m open for anybody’s suggestions,” Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said.
The best bet would be to take away the ball, but New England has committed only eight turnovers all season. Brady has the NFL’s lowest interception rate; he has been picked off three times in 420 passes, while throwing for 24 scores.
“Amazing and unbelievable,” Miami linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “But I know why they’ve got the least interceptions in the league. It’s because their running game is so good. You have to stop the run. Then you get hit with the play-action pass. They’re real precise and efficient. If you don’t make them one-dimensional, you’ve got a long day ahead.”
While the Patriots have gained two-thirds of their yardage through the air, they rank sixth in the NFL in rushing. Stevan Ridley needs 61 yards to reach 1,000, and he’s averaging 4.6 per carry.
The Patriots have won their past five games, and during the streak they’ve committed only two turnovers — while coming up with 16 takeaways. The ball-hawking defense has helped New England average nearly 44 points per game during the winning streak.
“Complementary football is always important for us,” Brady said. “And I think that’s what happens: You make a great play on defense and get us the ball and, bam, you capitalize on it with points.”
While the Patriots have given up more yards than all but five teams, they rank second in the NFL with 32 takeaways, including a league-high 18 fumble recoveries. Defensive end Rob Ninkovich said there’s nothing magical about their ability to force fumbles.
“It comes down to just fundamentals,” he said. “You always talk about, `Get a guy to the ball, and then get another guy to strip the ball out.’ So first man in is the tackle guy; the second man in is the strip guy. So that’s just fundamental stuff that you hear from when you’re in pee wee.”
The Dolphins played pee wee, too, but they lack the knack. Last year they totaled three fumble recoveries, the fewest in the league. This year their opponents have 16 fumbles, but Miami has recovered only three.
“The ball isn’t shaped too well to predict where it’s going to roll,” Miami defensive end Jared Odrick said. “Balls that have hit the ground, you see us all hustling to them trying to make the play. It’s a little frustrating.”
Over the past four seasons, the Dolphins rank last in the NFL with 70 takeaways. They have none in the past four games.
So how the heck are they going to get the ball away from Brady and company?
“Whatever it takes,” cornerback Sean Smith said, “whether it’s causing pressure, disguising, blitzing him, stripping the running backs and receivers when they catch the ball.”
Brady has been sacked only 15 times, and while Dolphins defenders talk of the need to get him off balance and out of rhythm, Smith said, “That’s so hard to do. He always seems to be comfortable out there.”
That was the case last year in Miami, when Brady threw for a team-record 517 yards in a Patriots victory. First-year Dolphins coach Joe Philbin knows how to prevent a repeat.
“We have to find a way,” Philbin said, “to take the ball away from them.”
AP Sports Writer Howard Ulman in Boston contributed to this story.
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