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Dave D'Onofrio's Patriots Notebook: Dolphins seeking AFC wild card

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — A desperate team is a dangerous team. That would classify the Miami Dolphins, who, at 7-6, are on the playoff bubble. The Dolphins are on the outside looking in at an AFC wild card spot.

"At this point in the season, it's almost like a playoff game," Patriots safety Devin McCourty said of the next opponent.

"Both teams are playing for something. Both teams have high hopes for the rest of the season. They know us well. We know them well. They're right in the hunt to be in the playoffs. So both teams have something to play for."

Defensive end Andre Carter echoed McCourty.

"They're fighting for a purpose," Carter said. "After Thanksgiving, every game is more important than the next, especially if you're trying to put your foot in the door for the postseason. Every week, the games get bigger and bigger and more important."

The 10-3 Patriots will try to clinch a playoff spot first and foremost in Miami, with an eye toward improving their position in the AFC standings to secure home field for the postseason.

"The most important thing is both teams are trying to play well at the end of the year," McCourty said. "Because no matter what you do, if you go forward, you want to be playing your best football. So we want to go in there and play well, and they want to win at home."

McCourty said that while Dolphins wide receivers Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline pose threats to the secondary, he's watching out for Miami fullback/tight end Charles Clay. In the teams' first meeting, a 27-17 Pats victory on Oct. 27 at Gillette, Clay caught five passes for 37 yards.

"I thought he played great last game, making plays where he had nothing, making guys miss and turning it into a big play," McCourty said of Clay. "We'll have our hands full. Everyone knows about Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline. But they have other good players like Clay. He does everything. He lines up everywhere. It's a tough matchup."

Praise afoot

Patriots coach Bill Belichick was asked about kicker Stephen Gostkowski's efforts the past two weeks, with a pair of 53-yarders against the Houston Texans and a 50-yarder against the Cleveland Browns.

"I think it would be hard to be much more clutch than that," Belichick said during a conference call.

Then, there was the successful execution of the onside kick which set up the game-winning score Sunday against the Browns.

"I think part of it for Steve is just not only did he get it done, but it was a very infrequent play and it was at the most critical time, and without it, we wouldn't have won," Belichick said. "All those things are impressive."

Belichick was also complimentary of third-down running back Shane Vereen, and not just for what he does catching the football.

"He's dependable in blitz pickup, which is important because really no matter what kind of receiver a back is, if he's not dependable in blitz pickup, it's hard to get him in the game," Belichick said. "Obviously, Shane does a good job with the ball in his hands." ...

Life without Gronk

Offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels addressed having to revamp the attack with the loss of tight end Rob Gronkowski for the season.

First off, McDaniels said you can't "replace" a player like Gronk, "a guy who can do so many unique things." That said, was he better equipped to handle that loss now than he was at the beginning of the season?

"I think we've experienced playing without him before, and I think that — I don't know if we're better equipped, or the same, I'm not exactly sure how to rate that," McDaniels said. "I just know that any time you lose a player like that, or you can't use a player like that, you need to put your time into a few different things, and other people have to play different roles. You play offense a little differently, and we do have experience doing that.

"We did it at the beginning of this year for a significant number of weeks, we did it in the offseason, we did it last year during the course of the season as well, so we've experienced this before. I think for that reason, we kind of have an idea of exactly what we need to use and how to kind of formulate our game plan to max out our strengths and try to make up for the loss of a very unique player."

Special delivery

Injured Patriots linebacker Jerod Mayo delivered over a thousand personalized notes to patients staying at the American Cancer Society's AstraZeneca Hope Lodge Center of Boston.

"As long as you have hope, you have a chance," Mayo, who also took part in the children's party, said.

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