Dolphins face daunting path to playoffs
EDS: ADDS quotes, details. Halfway through the season, the Miami Dolphins have already matched last year's loss total. Taxed by a tough schedule, they're three games behind AFC East leader New England and winless outside their division. Coach Tony Sparano sees the season at a crossroads. "We're at a point where this thing can go either way," Sparano said Monday. "I'm going to try my best to make sure it only goes one way." The path to the playoffs is daunting, however. A loss Sunday at New England dropped to the Dolphins to 3-5, and they might need wins in their final eight games to reach the postseason. The good news is the schedule finally eases. The defending division champions will be favored for the first time this season when they play host to Tampa Bay (1-7), coming off its first win of the season Sunday against Green Bay. "We need to win a game, I don't care who we're playing," Sparano said. Miami's first eight opponents included only one team that has a losing record - Buffalo (3-5). The Dolphins narrowly lost to Indianapolis and New Orleans, both 8-0. Now Miami faces three consecutive sub-.500 teams. Like all coaches, Sparano usually preaches one game at a time, but he's looking at the next two games collectively. After facing the Buccaneers, Miami must quickly prepare to play at Carolina (3-5) on Thursday, Nov. 19. "We have two games in 10 days, and that can change an awful lot," Sparano said. "It's going to be a critical time for us," running back Ronnie Brown said. An overall upgrade is needed. The Dolphins are well-balanced in their mediocrity - 23rd in the NFL in offense and 22nd in defense. To reach .500 for the first time this season, they especially need to improve deficiencies that were again costly at New England: a lack of explosiveness on offense, and a tendency to give up big plays on defense. Two statistics underscore the problem. The defense is last in the NFL in yards allowed per completion at 14.2, and the offense is next to last in yards per completion at 9.8. That's a disparity of more than 4 yards per reception. "There's only so long you can say, 'Let's look at this and fix it,"' receiver Greg Camarillo said. "It has to get fixed." With no pass gaining more than 23 yards against New England, the Dolphins were forced to grind out yards. They did so in the third quarter with a 16-play, 10-minute touchdown drive - only to have the Patriots immediately answer when Randy Moss burned a blitz with a 71-yard touchdown catch. So it has gone all season. The Dolphins simply must work harder to score than their opponents. "That's what we are as an offense," Brown said. "We just have to get better." The running game remains potent, but Miami's four wideouts have totaled only two touchdowns, and Chad Henne is averaging just 6.3 yards per pass attempt. "You can always do a better job," Camarillo said. "Hopefully we build more chemistry with Chad as time goes on." Rookie cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith had a long day against Brady, who threw for 332 yards. Struggling to mount a pass rush, the Dolphins blitzed often, leaving the secondary exposed in man-to-man coverage. "We need to have more pressure on the quarterback," Sparano said. The Patriots had three completions of 20 yards or more, increasing the season total allowed by Miami to 30, second-worst in the league. Linebacker Joey Porter had not one tackle, much less a sack. His season sack total remains at 2 1/2, compared with an AFC-high 17 1/2 last year. The normally chatty Porter was mum after the game and Monday. That left Camarillo to provide a voice of optimism. "Granted, we had a bad first half of the season," he said. "It's not too late to change that. We have to turn this thing around."