MIAMI (AP) – When the NFL schedule was released last spring, the Miami Dolphins’ game Sunday against New England loomed large, pitting a team touted as a Super Bowl contender against a division rival that has won three of the past five NFL titles. Alas, the showdown became a no-show.

Blame the Dolphins, who staggered to a 1-6 start and were virtually eliminated from the playoff race last week with four games still to play. Miami (5-7) will sit out the postseason for the fifth consecutive year, a franchise record, which leaves such veterans as defensive end Jason Taylor frustrated but well-rehearsed in coping with such disappointment.

“I just don’t think about it right now,” Taylor said. “This is our fifth year doing this stuff.”

With Miami flopping in its bid to end New England’s AFC East reign, the Patriots (9-3) are on the verge of their fourth consecutive division title. They’ll clinch it Sunday if they win and the New York Jets lose to Buffalo.

The Patriots have won three games in a row, overcoming eight turnovers in the past two weeks.

“Consistency is huge and we have yet to do that,” fullback Heath Evans said. “Half my mind says that’s good, because we’ve come nowhere close to peaking. The other half says we better figure it out quick.”

Trailing Indianapolis and San Diego by one game for the best record in the conference, the Patriots need a strong finish for any chance at a first-round bye in the playoffs. Three of their final four games are on the road, where they’re 5-0 with an average margin of nearly 23 points per game.

While the Dolphins remain mired in mediocrity under second-year coach Nick Saban, his mentor, Bill Belichick, revamps the Patriots’ roster every offseason and continues to win.

“They’ve got a system in place, they’ve got a belief in themselves and it’s almost like you can just kind of plug guys in and they just buy into what they’ve got going there,” Miami quarterback Joey Harrington said. “It is the standard everybody shoots for.”

New England is again playoff-bound thanks to a balanced offense coupled with a defense that’s tough to run against and third in the NFL with 27 takeaways. Miami is headed for another idle January because of a sputtering offense and a defense prone to breakdowns despite the play of Taylor, who has made 10 sacks and been involved in nine takeaways.

Taylor showed his value when he missed three minutes of Sunday’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, who scored two touchdowns during his absence.

“I can’t imagine him not being the defensive player of the year,” Belichick said. “There’s nobody I’ve seen that has played anywhere close to the level that he’s at.”

Taylor smiled at the praise from a rival coach.

“It’s a compliment, but it’s probably a little bit of a mind game, too,” Taylor said. “That’s all right. I think I’m tough enough to deal with it.”

The Dolphins once dominated the series, but the Patriots have won six of the past eight meetings, including a 20-10 victory on Oct. 8. New England is bidding to win consecutive games in Miami for the first time since 1986-88.

So while the Dolphins’ playoff hopes may be dashed, playing the Pats provides plenty of motivation.

“They’ve done a great job with the legacy they’ve set as far as the top dog,” tight end Randy McMichael said. “This is one of those games you’re always up for.

“It’s all about winning. Sometimes you don’t reach your ultimate goal, but winning is always enjoyable.”

While the Dolphins have had little luck against New England lately, the games tend to be close. In the past eight meetings, the Patriots have lost two by a total of three points and won twice in overtime.

“This is always a big game,” Taylor said. “Sunday should be no different.”

Yet it could have been bigger.

AP-ES-12-09-06 1304EST

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