WHO: Miami Dolphins (7-8) at New England Patriots (13-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1 p.m. ET
SITE: Gillette Stadium
SURFACE: Field Turf
TV: CBS, Bill Macatee, Rich Gannon
THE SPORTS XCHANGE PREDICTION: Patriots, 20-10
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Patriots scored 35 second-half points, thanks largely to special teams plays, in a 41-14 rout at Miami in Week 4. With the AFC No. 1 seed locked up, QB Tom Brady and the Patriots' first-teamers should be in barcaloungers by halftime, with backup Brian Hoyer expected to get significant work. The Dolphins have been undone by turnovers (minus-11 turnover margin), and QB Chad Henne won't get a break in Foxborough. The Patriots have 14 interceptions in their past six games.
FAST FACTS: The Dolphins are 6-1 on the road this season. ... Hoyer has 29 career pass attempts in nine appearances.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
Brandon Marshall admitted Thursday he's "not sure" if he and Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne can become a great combo in 2011.
"We had some opportunities this year to get it done and we didn't do that," Marshall said. "I guess we have to evaluate what we've done this year and see where we can improve and see if we can become good before we can become great."
Marshall, whose string of 100-catch seasons appears certain to end at three, also seemed to issue a vote of no-confidence in offensive coordinator Dan Henning ("I don't make those decisions") while fully endorsing Tony Sparano ("Awesome").
When told Henning recently said Marshall's 11.3-yard average remains close to his career norm, the receiver denied that was his ceiling.
"I wouldn't place that stigma on me: 'That's my history,' " Marshall said. "Put in the right situation, I'm sure I can be a guy to average 15-16 yards a catch. I don't see why not. Just throw it up, and I'll go get it. I don't care if there's one guy on me or two guys on me. There's no excuse for that. Just got to take advantage of what I'm blessed with, my body and my ability."
Marshall, while facing double coverage most of the season, made just three catches longer than 25 yards. Fellow wide receiver Brian Hartline had five, while tight end Anthony Fasano had four. Marshall's advice to Henne?
"Just got to let it go, you know?" Marshall said. "Don't worry about the consequences. Just throw it up and see what happens. Throw a pick or whatever. Let's live and die by it."
Marshall, who plans to take just two weeks off before resuming his football workouts, mentioned Roddy White (Falcons) and Calvin Johnson (Lions) as downfield threats he should be able to emulate.
No one has ever denied Wes Welker's toughness, but even the biggest supporters had to be pleasantly surprised when he made it back onto the practice field during training camp despite suffering a severe knee injury just six months earlier.
Welker tore the MCL and ACL in his left knee in last year's season finale against Houston. The recovery time figured to keep him out of the lineup for at least a few games, but Welker shocked everyone by returning in training camp and being ready for the season opener against Cincinnati.
With no setbacks, Welker led the team in catches this season and was named the winner of the team's Ed Block Courage Award for serving as an inspiration to his teammates and peers throughout the NFL.
"Being able to come back from the offseason that I had and last season, the way it ended, it was definitely an honor and I'm definitely happy to have my name on the Ed Block Courage Award," Welker said. "I think it was kind of by default, in a way, just because of the circumstances and I was really the only one who was hurt this offseason and things like that, but it's definitely an honor to be in the same breath as him."
While many assumed Welker would be out until at least October, the diminutive wide receiver had it in his mind all along that he'd be back in time for the opener.
"I'd say I take a little bit of satisfaction out of it, but at the same time, I just wanted to get back out there with my teammates and go out there and play ball and go out there and do what I love to do," he said, "so being able to do that and get back as early as possible was a key thing for me and (I'm) just trying to keep it going through the rest of the season."
Welker's injury last year occurred during an otherwise meaningless game since no playoff positioning was at stake. The Patriots face a similar predicament this weekend; their season finale against the Dolphins won't hurt or help them in the standings, so they're debating whether or not to rest their starters in light of what happened to Welker last season.
Asked for his take on the situation, Welker said, "I say that I'm here to play football. That's what I get paid to do. I love playing, so no matter what's at stake or no matter what the deal is, I want to play. I know people probably think differently about that, but I don't worry about other stuff, and whatever coach (Bill) Belichick decides for me, that's what I'm going to do, but I'm always ready to play."
At this point, the injury is an afterthought. Welker has played so well this year that it barely comes up anymore in conversation. His focus now is preparing for the finale and getting ready for another run at a Super Bowl title.
"This is the first time I think I've heard about it since -- I don't know -- it's been a long time, so thanks for rehashing this memory," joked Welker, "but I'm just happy to be back out there and excited about this week and practicing and getting better and getting ready for Miami."
-- Rookie cornerback/kick returner Nolan Carroll returned to practice Thursday, four days after suffering a concussion on a return against the Lions. Carroll, who previously overcame a concussion during spring practice before his senior year at Maryland, worked on a limited basis, according to the injury report.
-- Rookie right tackle Lydon Murtha (concussion) was not as fortunate, sitting out a second straight practice as he awaits medical clearance. Pat McQuistan continues to work in Murtha's place.
-- Inside linebacker Karlos Dansby (turf toe) also sat out a fifth straight practice over the past two weeks. He's looking doubtful at best to play in the cold climes of New England.
-- Tight end Anthony Fasano (knee) didn't practice either. Fasano's streak of 21 straight games is in jeopardy. Since coming to the Dolphins in 2008, Fasano has missed just two of 47 games, both last season with a hip injury (Tampa Bay and at Carolina).
-- Second-year LG Ray Feinga could be in line for more playing time at left guard if Richie Incognito starts a second straight game at center, as expected. Joe Berger also can play guard, but the Dolphins might use the finale to learn more about some younger options.
-- DL Ron Brace did not practice Thursday due to an elbow injury. Brace has recovered from the concussion that limited him in recent weeks, but there's no indication as to whether or not he'll be ready for Sunday.
-- OL Dan Connolly missed Thursday's practice due to a concussion. Connolly missed last week's game and will likely skip Sunday's season finale, too.
-- DL Mike Wright missed Thursday's practice as he continues to recover from a concussion. Given the fact Sunday's finale won't affect the standings, it's unlikely Wright will be available this weekend.
-- LB Tully Banta-Cain missed Thursday's practice due to a groin injury. With the playoff opener roughly two weeks away, Banta-Cain will likely take Sunday off to rest so that he'll be fresh for the postseason.
-- TE Aaron Hernandez participated in limited portions of Thursday's practice as he recovers from a hip injury. Hernandez will likely play if he's healthy enough since he missed last week's game in Buffalo.