Dolphins still have slim playoff hopes despite two straight defeats

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins came to work Monday still alive in the AFC playoff race, which surprised them.

"Crazy," cornerback Vontae Davis said.

If the season ended today ...

While the NFC playoff teams are set, with only positioning to be resolved in the final week, the AFC race is far more convoluted, with seven teams battling for two wild-card spots. More ...

Given the team's 7-8 record and poor performances in the past two games, it was difficult for even the Dolphins to think of themselves as a potential playoff team.

Not that the Dolphins should get their hopes up -- they're the longest of long shots. Merely explaining what must happen for them to reach the playoffs is a tall order.

"I have no idea," tight end Anthony Fasano said. "I don't know if many people do know. Everyone ahead of us needs to lose?"

That's a good guess. To earn a wild-card berth, the Dolphins must win their regular-season finale Sunday against Pittsburgh (8-7) while four other wild-card contenders lose.

That means Cleveland must beat Jacksonville (7-8), Oakland must beat Baltimore (8-7), New England must beat Houston (8-7) and Cincinnati must beat the New York Jets (8-7). If any one of those requirements is not met, the Dolphins are eliminated.

"We're still alive," coach Tony Sparano said with a notable lack of enthusiasm. "A lot of things have got to happen. You just worry about winning the game instead of anything else."

Given the past two weeks, that's plenty to worry about. On Sunday, the Dolphins played their worst half since the Parcells regime arrived, falling behind 27-0 before rallying in a 27-20 loss to Houston.

The week before, Miami fell behind Tennessee 24-6 before rallying and losing in overtime, 27-24.

A team that once showed a knack for fast starts has lately stumbled out of the gate, as if 1 p.m. kickoffs caught them by surprise. Sparano's voice rose in anger as he discussed the problem and the team's failure to heed his prodding.

"You start to stand around waiting for somebody to make the play, which is exactly what I talked about last week: 'Don't stand around and wait for somebody else to do it. You be the guy,'" Sparano said.

He declined to use injuries as an excuse, although the list has become long. The latest additions include inside linebacker Channing Crowder and running back Ricky Williams, both sidelined Sunday.

Crowder came out after two plays with a right foot injury and was on crutches Monday, suggesting he's unlikely to be available against the Steelers. Williams missed most of the second half with a sore right shoulder but said the injury wasn't serious.

While the Dolphins cling to the faintest postseason hopes, they can also play the role of spoilers against the reigning Super Bowl champion Steelers, who remain in the thick of the wild-card battle.

Sparano anticipates motivation will be easy to find.

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"After what happened out there Sunday, I would hope it's not very hard to regroup and bounce back," he said. "There are a lot of prideful players in that locker room. They have been gritty and feisty the entire year. That didn't happen yesterday in the first half. I think when your feelings get hurt a little bit, there's only one way to answer that. You bounce back. That's what we'll do."

Reviewing the tape of the Houston game didn't improve the coach's mood. The Dolphins dropped seven passes, including a potential interception. Sparano counted 10 missed tackles in the first half, which he said contributed to Texans receivers gaining 137 yards after the catch.

"I take great pride in the fact our team gets better as the season goes on," Sparano said. "We didn't get better in that phase. I take that personally."

The Dolphins have one more game to get it right. Sparano said he'll go all-out to win and won't use the regular-season finale as a chance to audition young reserves for next season.

"This game is an important game to me," he said. "It's not a preseason game."

After all, the Dolphins are still in the playoff race -- barely.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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