Fading Dolphins desperate for late-season surge

The Miami Dolphins‘ latest meltdown reinforced their tendency to fade at the finish, which bodes badly for a team needing a late-season surge.

After giving up 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to lose at Buffalo, the Dolphins (5-6) likely must win their final five games to have any shot at a playoff berth. Even a sweep might not be enough.

“We can’t afford to overlook anyone, because another loss at this point and it’s over,” linebacker Reggie Torbor said Monday.

The season veered off the path to the playoffs Sunday at last-place Buffalo, when the Dolphins were outscored 24-0 in the fourth quarter to lose 31-14. The end was ugly enough to raise the question: Did the Dolphins quit?

“You never want to make it look like you laid down or gave up,” Torbor said. “You like to take pride in what you do, whether you’re in the NFL or working in McDonald’s. That’s probably one of the worst parts of Sunday. I wouldn’t say we laid down, but like I said, perception is all that matters.”

Creating the perception were 17 points by the Bills in the final 3:35. That made it the Dolphins‘ worst loss of the season, both in margin and from an aesthetic standpoint.

The Dolphins had 10 days to get ready for the game, but it didn’t show, and coach Tony Sparano faulted himself for not having his team prepared.

“That’s a game we needed to win,” Sparano said. “Our fans deserve better. This organization deserves better. We’re going to make it better.”

It may be too late to rectify the situation this year. The Dolphins already have more regular-season losses than a year ago, when they made an improbable run to the AFC East title.

The latest defeat means Miami won’t be playing for the division lead Sunday against first-place New England.

“We have a lot of work to do,” guard Justin Smiley said. “It’s going to be an uphill battle.”

If the Dolphins fall short of the playoffs, they can blame their failure to close out games. Three times they’ve blown a fourth-quarter lead and lost. They’ve given up by the most points of any team in the fourth quarter, when they’ve been outscored 134-74.

Miami wheezed to the finish against the Bills.

“They were scoring one touchdown after another,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “You start to see things fall apart – for everything to collapse like that, you can’t explain it. We’re all confused.”

There were troubling issues aside from the latest fourth-quarter flameout.

The run defense that was a strength early in the season has gone soft, in part due to the absence of nose tackle Jason Ferguson, sidelined for the season with a quadriceps injury. Miami has allowed more than 100 yards rushing in seven consecutive games, and the Bills averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

“A few times out there we got punched around a little bit,” Sparano said.

Chad Henne endured his worst game, throwing three late interceptions to finish with a quarterback rating of 42.5. Sparano said Henne began well but made “a couple of decisions that I’m sure he feels like he needed to have back.”

There were some bright spots: Joey Porter had 2 1/2 sacks, Ricky Williams topped 100 yards rushing for the third game in a row, and Sparano praised the play of the offensive line. Smiley, a six-year NFL starter, lodged no complaint about being replaced in the lineup by Nate Garner.

“Coach knows what he’s doing,” Smiley said.

Sparano knows the Dolphins have no margin for error after missing a chance to climb above .500 for the first time this season. He still regards his team as a playoff contender, however.

“Our next five opponents all have the same things at stake that we do,” Sparano said. “People might have written us off, but I haven’t.”