MIAMI, OCT. 18 -- The Miami Dolphins have improved so much they can win even when they look bad.

Stingy defense and Mark Higgs's touchdown on a blocked punt helped the Dolphins overcome five turnovers tonight in a 17-10 victory over the New England Patriots that gave them sole possession of first place in the AFC East.

Miami (5-1), seeking its first playoff berth since 1985, took a half-game lead over Buffalo. New England (1-5) has lost four in a row.

An 11-day layoff left both teams looking sloppy. The Dolphins suffered an interception and four lost fumbles -- one in the Patriots' end zone -- all in the first half.

"You've got to look at how poorly we played offensively, and you can't be happy about that," Miami Coach Don Shula said. "It seemed like everything you could do wrong you did. The defense kept the offense in it."

New England had 34 yards at halftime and 197 overall against Miami's defense, ranked fourth in the NFL. The Patriots were four of 18 on third downs.

"Things went bad for the offense tonight," said defensive end Jeff Cross, who had one of five Miami sacks and leads the league with eight. "We know there will be days like this. We just hung in there and did enough to get the job done."

The Dolphins led at halftime, 10-3, thanks to Higgs's 19-yard return of a blocked punt. With the ball at the Patriots 36, he slipped up the middle and smothered Brian Hansen's kick, grabbed the ball on the bounce and scored easily.

Dan Marino set up Miami's other touchdown late in the third quarter by hitting Mark Clayton for 36 yards to the Patriots 2. Sammie Smith scored on the next play to cap a 64-yard drive for a 17-3 lead.

New England's touchdown came with 6:18 left when George Adams caught a four-yard pass from Marc Wilson on fourth down. The Patriots quickly forced a punt and took over at the Miami 44, but their final threat ended when Wilson was stopped for no gain on a fourth-down sneak at the 35 with 3:31 left.

Linebackers E.J. Junior and Hugh Green each had two sacks of Wilson, who completed 18 of 38 passes for 187 yards. His record as the Patriots' starting quarterback fell to 0-8.

The Dolphins entered tied for the AFC lead in fewest turnovers, with nine in five games. They are off to their best start since 1984, when they last went to the Super Bowl.