Surprisingly early pivotal game for Patriots on Sunday

For years, the regular season has simply been a tuneup for the New England Patriots.

Since 2002, there was little question they were going to make the playoffs if Tom Brady was healthy, which they have done every year except 2008 when Brady was lost for the season in the opener.

The Patriots have dominated the AFC East, mainly because the other three teams haven’t had a franchise quarterback since Jim Kelly and Dan Marino retired after the 1996 and 1999 seasons. The New York Jets haven’t had one since Joe Namath departed for the Los Angeles Rams in 1977.

In the last 15 years, the Patriots have made the playoffs 14 times and gone to the Super Bowl seven times, winning four and losing three.

But suddenly, the Patriots are poised to play their biggest regular-season game in years when they host Miami on Sunday.

The 1-2 Patriots have lost two in a row by double digits for just the third time in the Bill Belichick era and for the first time since 2002.

They face a Miami team that is 3-0. A loss to the Dolphins would leave the Patriots three games behind Miami at the first-quarter pole.

A three-game losing streak would be a sign the Patriots aren’t just off to a typical slow start, but are in decline.

It also means a lot to Miami, which has beaten the Tennessee Titans, Jets and Oakland Raiders. We also don’t know if the Dolphins are for real. Although Ryan Tannehill is 10-1 in his last 11 starts, he’s not a franchise quarterback, either, and makes too many mistakes. Brady gives the Patriots the edge on Tannehill.

Nobody expected this game to mean much when the season started, so it is a 1 p.m. game on CBS, sharing the spotlight with three other games and four more on Fox.

The oddsmakers expect the Patriots to get it together and don’t think the Dolphins are as good as their record.

And the Patriots have won 15 of the last 22 meetings, including the last six, and the home team in the series has won 11 of the last 13 games.

The Patriots have lost at home to Miami only once with Brady, in 2005. The Dolphins also won in 2008 in Foxborough, Mass., when Brady was injured.

If the Patriots turn in their expected victory, a lot of handwringing will end in New England.

But if the Dolphins pull off an upset, the Patriots-in-decline chatter will continue.

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