By Howard Ulman
---- — FOXBOROUGH — Tom Brady found something encouraging in his toughest stretch of the season.
He knows he and his New England Patriots can come back from a huge deficit.
The two-time NFL Most Valuable Player had his three lowest passer ratings of the season in his past four games. His 68.9 on Dec. 16 in a 41-34 loss to the San Francisco 49ers was his worst in his last 49 regular-season games. But at least he rallied them from a 31-3 deficit to tie that game with four touchdowns in 15 minutes.
“If we’re down 28 points again, which I hope we’re not, at least you can say, ‘Well, we’ve come back from this before,’ “ Brady said Wednesday. “So I think you can draw on those experiences, but this week is going to be its own separate game and we’re going to have to go out there and earn it.”
The Patriots showed that comeback ability a year ago against the Miami Dolphins, the team they’ll meet in the regular-season finale on Sunday. In last season’s matchup at Gillette Stadium in the next to last game before the playoffs, the Patriots overcame a 17-0 halftime deficit by scoring the next 27 points and won 27-24.
This year, the Patriots (11-4) have clinched the AFC East title. The Dolphins (7-8) are out of the playoffs for the fourth straight season.
New England can be seeded in any of the conference’s top four spots. The Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and Baltimore Ravens also will finish in the top four with the top two getting first-round byes.
But the Patriots could be eliminated from the No. 1 position by the time their game starts at 4:25 p.m.
Houston (12-3) would clinch it with a win over the Indianapolis Colts (10-5) in a 1 p.m. game. Denver (12-3) is currently in second place in the AFC and is home against the weak Kansas City Chiefs at 4:25 p.m. Baltimore (10-5) is in fourth and visits Cincinnati at 1 p.m.
Coach Bill Belichick isn’t focusing on all the possibilities.
“We’re doing everything we can to get ready for the Dolphins,” he said. “I’ve been around this league long enough to know that you can’t predict how things are going to go on Sundays in the NFL. We’ll control what we can control, which is to get ready and play Miami.”
Brady is taking the same approach.
No matter what Houston does, “I don’t think that changes what our goal is for the weekend,” he said. “We’re trying to win this game regardless. It could be different if some other teams win, but that’s really out of our control.”
The Patriots had won seven straight games, capping that stretch with wins over the Dolphins, 23-16, and Texans, who entered that game with the NFL’s best record but lost 42-14.
But in the two games since then, New England got off to poor starts in the loss to San Francisco and a 23-16 win over the lowly Jacksonville Jaguars last Sunday.
“We put a lot into the preparation throughout the course of the week and you’d love for it to go well,” Brady said. “Sometimes it doesn’t always go very well. But you put as much into it the following week as well.”
In his first 11 games, Brady threw three interceptions and was sacked 15 times. In his last four games, he’s had five interceptions and 11 sacks.
“It’s about playing consistent football and I think we’ve got to do a better job of that,” he said. “We’ve still got a chance to improve it. And really, if we’re consistent this week, which I hope we are, that’s ultimately what’s going to help us win this game, not really what happened in the previous month or two months.”
The Patriots have been far from the dominant team they were most of the season. Five of their first eight wins were by 21 points or more. Two of their last three were by seven.
One of those was against Miami on Dec. 2. The Dolphins had cut the lead to 20-13 on Dan Carpenter’s 33-yard field goal with 8:28 left in the game. Then the Patriots put together a time-consuming drive that resulted in Stephen Gostkowski’s 20-yard field goal with 1:10 remaining. Carpenter kicked a 42-yarder, but the Patriots recovered the onside kick, ending the Dolphins chances.
“It is pretty fresh in our mind of how they played us, the things they do well,” Brady said. “Certainly, they gave us everything we could handle. They’re a good team. There’s nothing easy about this team.”
Win or lose, the Patriots will be heading to the playoffs. They could play in the wild-card round the following weekend. Or, if they’re seeded first or second, they’d have the weekend off before hosting a divisional playoff game.
For now, the focus is on the Dolphins.
“Right now what matters is just our performance in this game,” Belichick said. “How that affects some other week, I don’t know. Right now, we just want to take advantage of our opportunity to prepare and play well and coach well this Sunday. That’s really what it’s about.”