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Patriots aware that this is not the same Dolphins team they beat 43-0 in Week 2

Related: Meet the Patriots’ Week 17 opponent, the Miami Dolphins

NFL: New England Patriots at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

15 weeks is a long time in the NFL, especially during the season. Teams evolve on a regular basis, after all, and the yesterday’s competitors do not necessarily have to be the champions of tomorrow. The same goes in the different direction as well: time and again over the last few seasons, teams that started slowly out of the gate were able to find their groove along the way and turn into competitive and sometimes even playoff-caliber teams.

The Miami Dolphins will not make the playoffs this year, but they definitely have improved quite a bit since September. After all, the team of first-year head coach Brian Flores lost its first four games of the season by an average score of 40.8 to 6.5. Since then, however, it has slowly but steadily developed into a more competitive one and is entering Sunday’s meeting with the New England Patriots with a 4-4 record over the last eight games.

The team’s development is certainly not lost on the Patriots, who are entering their rematch with the Dolphins with plenty on the line: in order to secure a first-round bye for the postseason, the AFC East champions will need to beat the Dolphins. And while the oddsmakers think that this should not be a problem for the team, New England’s coaching staff certainly is aware that the upcoming challenge should not be taken lightly.

“I think you can see a lot of confidence there, a lot of improvement in the overall understanding and execution of what they’re trying to do in all three phases of the game,” head coach Bill Belichick said during a media conference call earlier this week. “I think you can definitely see the high-quality of a number of their players, and overall, collectively, a much more efficient team than what we saw earlier in the year.”

Earlier in the year, the Dolphins were still trying to find their footing and they repeatedly stumbled. The game against New England might have been the hardest fall along the way as the Patriots started slowly but continued to pile up points and eventually dominated the game on the scoreboard and in all three phases. When all was said and done, Belichick’s squad had won with a final score of 43-0 and put up two defensive touchdowns.

The blowout loss against their division rivals was one of seven straight to open the season for the Dolphins. Since a 26-18 victory over the New York Jets in Week 9, however, Miami has played some much better and more consistent football and won four of eight games — including victories over an Indianapolis Colts team that was very much still in the playoff race at that point and the current leaders in the NFC East, the Philadelphia Eagles.

“They’ve got a lot of different faces that have — we don’t know this team maybe the same way we would know a normal division team because they’ve had so many bodies play on defense,” noted outside linebackers coach DeMarcus Covington when asked about the Dolphins earlier this week. “We’re in the process of really trying to hone in on who’s where, how they utilize their personnel, the different strengths and weaknesses.”

“This is a different team than when we played them earlier in the season, just like we’re a different team than when we played earlier in the season,” added Josh McDaniels, whose unit scored 29 of the Patriots’ points in September. “When you look around the National Football League from Week 2 to Week 16, every team has changed, whether it’s the roster change, philosophy change, or your team has just evolved and gotten better.”

“I’ll say the Miami Dolphins have gotten a lot better from Week 1 to now,” the Patriots’ offensive coordinator added. “Their coaching staff has done a good job of preparing the players: they play hard, they do a lot of good things up front, they do a lot of good things with their receiver corps, and then of course [...] their quarterback just being a savvy veteran that has played a lot of football and who can lead that group in the right direction.”

Miami has little to play for entering this game with a 4-11 record and will draft in the top five no matter what happens on Sunday, but the team certainly could spoil the Patriots’ attempts at earning a bye on wild card weekend. Needless to say that New England’s coaches preach a simple message this week: the team has to play good football in order to come away victoriously and complete the first season sweep of the AFC East since 2012.

“I would never say the word easy,” said McDaniels about the Patriots’ upcoming opponent. “These guys are definitely a group that we’ve got to prepare well for. They’ve played in a lot of close football games, and they compete very, very hard and that really starts from their head coach. You know, he was in our building, so I know what type of guy he is, so I know the type of football team that they have.”