The New England Patriots have been playing this underdog gig for a month now.

Which entails running back Craig James saying: "Destiny is on our side. Or if he isn't, he's standing awfully close."

And guard Ron Wooten saying: "We've won at the toughest places. Miami is the last castle we have to storm."

Then there was the statement by Julius Adams at a Patriots rally in Boston this week. Adams is the 37-year-old defensive lineman who will retire to his 100-acre farm near Macon, Ga., after this season. He played the rabble-rouser, reportedly telling the gathering, "We're going down there to rip their faces off!"

The Patriots will play the Dolphins at 4 p.m. (WRC-TV-4) for the American Conference title at the Orange Bowl, where New England hasn't won since 1966. Eighteen straight losses and no wonder why Don Shula is a six-point favorite over Destiny.

Reserve quarterback Don Strock, 35, the only Dolphin with a Super Bowl ring, said, "(Coach Shula) has been talking about this jinx thing all week, telling us how it doesn't mean anything."

Of course, banking on Destiny can leave you high and dry when you're facing Dan Marino, the Miami quarterback who threw for a league-high 30 touchdowns this season.

The Patriots (13-5) went on the road and defeated the Jets, 26-14, and the Raiders, 27-20, in the playoffs and aim to become only the third wild-card team to reach the Super Bowl: Dallas lost to Pittsburgh in Super Bowl X and Oakland beat Philadelphia in Super Bowl XV.

Miami (13-4) takes aim on its third Super Bowl appearance in four years. Its most prolific receiver, Mark Clayton (71 catches), suffered a bruised shoulder in practice this week but is expected to start, Shula said.

The Dolphins extended their victory streak to eight games last Sunday when they rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat Cleveland, 24-21. Although this showed how difficult it is to beat the Dolphins in the Orange Bowl (.820 winning percentage since Shula arrived in 1970), it also showed that the way to disrupt the Dolphins is by running. Cleveland gained 251 yards rushing.

Shula said: "We gave up 6.8 yards (per carry to Cleveland). We're obviously concerned. Every team we play, it's no secret they want to run on us."

Brian Holloway, New England's all-pro left tackle, said of that Cleveland game: "It shows you that it is possible. But we don't think it is a piece of cake or anything."

The Patriots' defense, among the league's best this season, must stop Marino's passing, and the Miami defense, among the league's most porous, must stop James and the Patriots' running.

There is another factor: special teams. Examine the Patriots' two playoff games and you'll see they possess a plus-eight turnover differential. In the 16-game regular season, they managed a plus-five.

More importantly, the Patriots have turned 10 postseason turnovers into 37 points (four touchdowns, three field goals) and their two turnovers have been worth seven.

Because the Patriots' kickoff coverage team has forced a fumble, then returned it for a game-turning touchdown in each of the past two weeks, Shula has spent extra time this week telling his kickoff and punt returners to hold on to the ball.

Perhaps the most remarkable statistic about the 1985 Patriots is that they have recovered a fumbled punt or kickoff and returned it for a touchdown five times.

The Patriots, of course, will play without wide receiver Irving Fryar, who suffered lacerations on his right hand Wednesday, reportedly during a dispute with his wife. Fryar will be replaced by Stephen Starring, who Coach Raymond Berry said "could be Irving's equal in ability, and that's a fact."

Starring may be Fryar's equal as a receiver. However, Fryar's loss may hinder the Patriots most in punt returns. Fryar averaged a league-best 14.1 yards per return and broke off two for touchdowns, one measuring 85 yards. Starring returned two punts for zero net yardage.

These two teams of the AFC Eastern Division split two games this season: quarterback Steve Grogan rallied the Patriots to a 17-13 victory in Foxboro in Week 9 and Fuad Reveiz kicked a 47-yard field goal in the rain with less than five minutes to play to allow for a 30-27 Miami victory in the Orange Bowl in Week 15.

"The big thing defensively is to stop that Irish quarterback from scoring points," Berry said. "He is Irish, isn't he? Marino?"

The Patriots have done as good a job as any defense in stopping Marino. In two games against the Patriots this season, Marino has completed less than half of his passes (32 of 66) and has thrown for one touchdown; he was intercepted three times. He failed to throw for 200 yards in either game.

So maybe it's a whole lot more than Destiny that is riding on the Patriots' side. "This is the big time," said linebacker Andre Tippett, who had a conference-high 16.5 quarterback sacks for a loss of 118 yards this season. "I think our guys are all handling it well."

Said Adams: "Every player in the league would like to go out with a ring on his finger. That's what I want."

It may be more than coincidence that in the two previous games between these teams, eight turnovers were committed, four by each team. Some players feel that familiarity breeds, well, turnovers.

Shula and Berry know each other from way back. Berry caught 12 passes for 224 yards in a Colts victory over the Redskins in 1957. The Redskins had a cornerback named Don Shula.

"He didn't catch all 12 against me," Shula said with a smile this week. And Berry countered with a smile and a retort: "At least half."

Berry, who later was coached by Shula in Baltimore in the '60s, was voted coach of the year in the conference this season. His players say that when he replaced Ron Meyer last season, the team attitude changed. So did the winning percentage.

Berry is from Texas and his humor is as dry as any plains. He said this week that he once visited the Boston Pops and was amazed at the unity and the teamwork.

But he noticed one distinct difference from football: "Not at any time during the performance did anyone run up and slap any of them upside the head."

Berry had the perfect, even-keel reponse when asked if his Patriots might already be satisfied just by reaching this AFC title game and suffer a letdown Sunday.

"It's a logical thing that can happen," Berry said. "But I don't think that it will."