(SportsNetwork.com) - Three weeks ago, it looked like a sure-fire matchup of the two best teams in the AFC East. Now, it looks more like the Adversity Bowl.
Regardless of how it's labeled, the Sunday afternoon Week 8 contest between the host New England Patriots and the visiting Miami Dolphins is one that features a pair of teams growing increasingly desperate for a victory.
The Patriots enter while still holding their accustomed spot atop the division, but that status got an unexpected challenge last week when they dropped a 30-27 overtime decision to the upstart New York Jets, who lurk a game behind in the standings.
Miami, meanwhile, was 3-0 to start the season but has since plummeted back to the East's middle ground - in this case, third place in a four-team division - with three straight losses.
New England hasn't lost two in a row in the division since 2006, when it was beaten consecutively by the Jets and the Dolphins. The Patriots nonetheless finished 12-4, won the East and advanced to the AFC Championship Game that year before losing to the Indianapolis Colts.
Against the Jets last week, Tom Brady and Co. churned out just 295 total yards, marking the third time in seven games they'd been held under 300 and the second time this season it occurred against New York.
Brady completed less than 50 percent of his passes - 22-of-46 - for the third time as well and did not throw a TD pass.
He hadn't had a sub-50 percent game in the last three seasons.
All this occurred with previously injured tight end Rob Gronkowski on the field for the first time after he'd missed the first six games while recovering from offseason surgeries. He caught eight passes for 114 yards while Brady targeted him 17 times - indicating a clearer comfort level with him than with any of the Patriots' other young receivers.
Miami has never beaten the Patriots in New England with Brady as the primary QB.
"You've got to be able to spread it around, there's no question about that," Brady said. "It just happens to be if a guy is a particular read on a play and he is open, you let it rip, whoever it is. Gronk, when he is on the field, he is obviously a part of the reads. Whether he is the first read, the second read or the third read."
One game in, Gronkowski is already the team's fifth-leading receiver. He caught two passes for 42 yards, including a 23-yard TD, in a Week 17 game against Miami last season, won by the Patriots, 28-0.
"You always get the jitters the first game back and everything. It's just football now, Gronkowski said. "This is my fourth year. I've got to just go out there and do what I've got to do, listen to the coaches, listen to the players and just practice to the best of my ability so I can be ready for Sunday, and keep a rhythm going every single week."
Perhaps a more glaring concern for New England is the defense, which allowed 30 points for the first time this season and to a Jets team that had scored 30 just once in its last 16 games.
New York held the ball for 46 minutes, 13 seconds and Jets running back Chris Ivory went for 104 yards on 34 carries to become the first triple-digit rusher against the Patriots in 22 games.
The Jets' run-heavy attack took full advantage of the absences of injured tackle Vince Wilfork (Achilles) and linebacker Jerod Mayo (shoulder), both of whom are out for the season. Also absent Sunday were cornerback Aqib Talib with a hip problem and tackle Tommy Kelly with a knee injury.