Patriots look to overcome their Miami jinx

The Patriots failed to be submarined by a sluggish start in September and have since won eight of nine games to rise to the top of the AFC East and surface among the contenders for a first-round playoff bye.

They’re 9-3 and stand second in the conference, one game behind Kansas City. But the Patriots hold the tiebreaker over the Chiefs and third-place Houston Texans by virtue of head-to-head victories over both.

The Patriots practically have two wins in their pocket as they close the season at home against the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets, who are a combined 7-17 and were already felled after giving their division rival their best shots.

So, yes, things are looking good in December admitted defensive end Trey Flowers while channeling his inner Yogi Berra.

“Yeah, we’re in a pretty good position to put ourselves in a pretty good position,” Flowers said. “So we just have to continue to take it one day at a time, one game at a time and we’ll be where we want to be when we get where we want to be.”

That would be in Atlanta on the evening of Feb. 3 for Super Bowl LIII.

The first confirmed step in that direction could occur on Sunday when the Patriots face the Dolphins in warm, but possibly wet conditions in Miami.

A victory would clinch the AFC East for the 10th straight season and make the Patriots the first team in NFL history to earn 10 consecutive postseason invites, breaking a tie with the Dallas Cowboys (1975-83) and Indianapolis Colts (2002-10).

So get the division champion hats and T-shirts ready. Not that the Patriots are using that as extra incentive — at least not publicly.

“Just treating it like another game,” running back James White said. “Just try to go and get a win versus a divisional opponent on the road. The last few times we’ve played them down there, we haven’t played very well so I think that’s enough motivation in itself.”

The Patriots figure to have their work cut out against the Dolphins, a team they vanquished by 31 points in Week 4 in what was indisputably a season-salvaging victory.

That’s because the rematch is in South Florida, where Canton-bound quarterback Tom Brady is 7-9 all-time, including 1-4 in his last five visits there.

The Dolphins are 6-6 and fringy participants in the playoff conversation, but they’re 5-1 at Hard Rock Stadium and 16-6 in regular-season home games since coach Adam Gase arrived in 2016.

“We’re a good team here,” Fins safety T.J. McDonald said. “We’re comfortable. I think that’s kind of the story of the NFL right now. Teams are winning at home and losing on the road. For us, we want to protect home field as much as possible.”

To accomplish that task, the Dolphins will not only have to find a way to baffle Brady and an offense that ranks seventh in the league in scoring (27.6) and yards (395.1), but also get the better of a defense that has become stingy since the bye week.

The Patriots have surrendered 13 and 10 points in the last two games, during which the Jets and Minnesota Vikings converted a mere 36 percent of their third-down opportunities. They allowed three trips into the red zone, albeit for two touchdowns, and intercepted three passes.

“I would say our past two weeks have been our best weeks,” defensive tackle Adam Butler said.

That’s continued a trend that has seen the Patriots not allow a 100-yard rusher in nine games and a 300-yard passer in five games while climbing from 20th to ninth in the league in scoring defense.

There’s been no secret to that improvement from the Patriots’ perspective. They’ve remained steady and refused to be satisfied in good times and bad.

“Just trying to stay consistent and not get complacent,” safety Patrick Chung said. “Complacency is a big thing that can cause a lot of bad plays and fluctuation in your play.”

Some of what the Dolphins have seen on film recently is familiar and some of it is different from what they viewed in person in a 38-7 beatdown in late September at Gillette Stadium.

In particular, de facto defensive coordinator Brian Flores has dialed up the pressure as of late.

“They’re playing physical right now, which you see every year,” said Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is 3-7 all-time against the Patriots. “They still do some of the same stuff, mixing up their pressures.

“I think over the past five weeks compared to the last time we played them and in years past, they’re bringing a lot more Cover 0 pressures — bringing everyone and trying to get a guy free up front. I would say that’s probably the biggest change from what I’ve seen.”

And now, after overcoming a sluggish start in, September the Patriots are positioned in December to set themselves up for where they want to be in February.