Resilient Dolphins still in playoff race

Stephen Ross has been an NFL majority owner for 12 whole games,

and he’s already impatient about his Miami Dolphins making the

Super Bowl.

This season’s game is Feb. 7 in Miami, and Ross wants the

Dolphins to be the first team to play a Super Bowl in its own

stadium.

“It should only happen in Miami,” he said. “This year

wouldn’t be soon enough.”

Ross smiled as he spoke, and the comment would have been even

funnier just last week, when his team appeared headed nowhere fast.

Saddled with the NFL’s toughest schedule, the Dolphins started the

season 0-3, twice blew chances to reach .500 and lost Thanksgiving

weekend at Buffalo in their worst performance since Bill Parcells

came to town nearly two years ago.

That left defending AFC East champion Miami at 5-6 and likely

needing a sweep of the final five games for a return to the

playoffs.

“Our mettle got tested,” coach Tony Sparano said.

As has been the case all season, the Dolphins bounced back. They

fell behind New England 14-0 Sunday, then mounted a frantic rally,

throwing 52 passes and kicking a field goal with barely a minute

left to win 22-21.

“It was something out of a movie, man,” guard Justin Smiley

said. “I am very honored to be a part of it.”

With serious deficiencies at receiver, two rookies at cornerback

and a first-year starter at quarterback, the Dolphins are probably

not going to fulfill their owner’s Super Bowl wish. But a scenario

sending them back to the playoffs is now an easier sell.

New England (7-5) leads Miami in the division by only one game

and has lost two in a row. As for the wildcard race, six AFC teams

have more wins than the Dolphins, who play one of them Sunday at

Jacksonville (7-5).

And the schedule has eased: After Jacksonville, none of the

Dolphins’ final three opponents has a winning record.

Miami is grateful to be in the mix because at times, this season

looked like a big step backward from last year’s improbable run to

the playoffs.

“I like knowing that you have a chance, and like knowing there

are some teams right now not playing for very much, and we have a

chance,” Sparano said. “We are going to try to do everything in

our power to make this the best run we can make it.”

They have yet to climb above .500, an indication there’s still

work to do for the Parcells regime. The wildcat has helped disguise

the scarcity of big gains on offensive, and the defense has given

up more fourth-quarter points than any team in Dolphins history.

Especially wrenching were blown leads late in losses to

Indianapolis and New Orleans, both still undefeated.

But the resilience of Miami’s young players bodes well for the

future.

There have been growing pains for cornerbacks Vontae Davis and

Sean Smith, taken in the first two rounds of the April draft. Both

have given up big plays but made some, too – Davis outmaneuvered

Randy Moss to intercept Tom Brady in the end zone in the fourth

quarter Sunday.

In Chad Henne, the Dolphins believe they have a keeper at

quarterback. The second-year pro is inconsistent, but he’s also 6-3

as a starter, including three fourth-quarter comeback wins. He

missed several open receivers against the Patriots but also topped

300 yards for the first time.

“The guy just keeps bouncing back,” Sparano said. “I love the

kid because his demeanor doesn’t change at all. He could throw a

touchdown pass, he could bring it down the field in the fourth

quarter, or he can throw one to the other team – whatever, this

guy’s demeanor just doesn’t change. He’s rock-solid that way.”

While the Dolphins are a young team, several thirtysomethings

have played key roles. When leading rusher Ronnie Brown was

sidelined by a season-ending foot injury, 32-year-old Ricky

Williams embraced a heavier workload and topped 100 yards rushing

in three consecutive games. Joey Porter, also 32, has been slowed

by a knee and hamstring injury much of the season but is still the

sack leader for a team with a strong pass rush.

And 35-year-old Jason Taylor has played well enough to inspire

speculation he’ll return in 2010. He has also contributed

considerable locker-room wisdom, such as when he talks about trying

to stay in the playoff race week after week.

“While we know the stakes of the game, we can’t make one too

big, but you cannot prepare for a game and take it lightly,”

Taylor said. “It really has been even keel. While maybe it is a do

or die, it hasn’t been a desperation thing. We just keep chipping

away.”