What rebuilding project? Dolphins focus on winning now

By the time the Dolphins reached Week 14 of the 2007 season, they were united on one front in a locker room otherwise lacking in unity or pretty much anything else typically associated with success.

"We were ready for the season to be over," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said.

The Dolphins were 0-12, on their way to 0-13. Their first win would finally come in Week 15 ... and would be followed by two more losses to put the finishing touches on a 1-15 disaster.

A year later, the Dolphins find themselves in such a different place that it almost boggles the mind. At 7-5, they enter Week 14 only one game out of first place in the AFC East.

"Now you're sitting here in December and you're in the hunt," Holliday said. "Coming off of last year, I never thought that we'd be where we are right now."

Here's where the Dolphins are: A victory Sunday against the 6-6 Bills would give them their first season sweep against their division rivals since 2003. A 4-0 finish -- which would also include wins against the 49ers, Chiefs, and Jets -- would give them their first AFC East crown since 2000. And even if the Dolphins don't run the table, there are legitimate mathematical possibilities, which factor in losses by the Jets and Patriots, that could still give Miami its first postseason appearance since 2001.

Although the improvement from a year ago has been stunning, it hasn't come as a complete surprise to some of the veteran players who survived a 50-percent-plus roster makeover. When Bill Parcells became the Dolphins' executive vice president of football operations and hired Jeff Ireland as general manager and Tony Sparano as head coach, the attitude throughout the organization immediately shifted from despair to hope.

Since the beginning of offseason workouts, the target was always to build a playoff contender this season, not a year or two or three down the line.

"It's a big change," offensive tackle Vernon Carey said. "They're changing the culture, they're changing guys' mindset, showing that you can be winners. That's what they've been stressing all year: 'Why not you?'

"We didn't practice all year to be second-place guys. We practice to be No. 1 guys, and that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to accomplish that goal. We're doing a good job so far, but we've got to continue it."

Despite having plenty of cause for optimism, the Dolphins have not been playing their best lately.

On Nov. 23, they suffered a crushing, 48-28 loss to the Patriots at home. It was a game that was supposed to give both teams a clear sense of where they stood in the division. After Matt Cassel threw for 415 yards and three touchdowns (all to Randy Moss), the sense was that, even without Tom Brady, the Patriots were still capable of being as explosive as they were in their record-shattering '07 season. Despite their 25-point win over the Pats at Foxborough, Mass., in September, the Dolphins were left feeling that, for all of their progress, they still had plenty of room to improve.

That point was driven home a week ago when they barely escaped St. Louis with a 16-12 triumph over the 2-10 Rams. The Dolphins made the game closer than it should have been by committing a season-high 10 penalties and losing a fumble, which is the sort of sloppiness that Sparano had mostly eliminated with an approach that stressed smarts and discipline. On top of that, they lost a key offseason acquisition, offensive guard Justin Smiley, for the rest of the season with a broken leg. That came a week after the loss of leading receiver Greg Camarillo to a season-ending knee injury.

Still, the Dolphins did manage to gain critical ground by coming away with a victory on the same day that the Patriots and Jets lost. They did what they failed to do on numerous occasions a year ago, which was win a tight game.

"That's what good teams do," Carey said. "They win the close ones."

"We were that team last year," Holliday said of the Rams. "The bad breaks, not getting the lucky bounces, a sack at a bad time in the game, an interception at the wrong time. It seemed like nothing could go right. I know what that's like. I was a part of that."

Now the Dolphins have a team that, for the most part, is able to avoid the many pratfalls they had last season. They are better because they:

» Used the top overall pick of the draft on tackle Jake Long, who has been a considerable upgrade to the offensive line.

» Signed smart, ultra-efficient quarterback in Chad Pennington after he was released from the Jets to make room for Brett Favre.

» Have a defensive-player-of-the-year candidate in linebacker Joey Porter, who ranks second in the NFL with 14.5 sacks.

» Added other key rookie contributors in defensive ends Philip Merling and Kendall Langford, and clutch kicker Dan Carpenter.

» Brought in key veterans who helped the Cowboys win 13 games last season and who have been vital to the Dolphins' turnaround: Linebacker Akin Ayodele, defensive back Nate Jones, and nose tackle Jason Ferguson.

» Stayed remarkably free of serious injuries until the last two weeks.

"Those storylines all are great to see and be a part of, but the biggest story line is us sitting here 7-5 with an opportunity -- a true, legit opportunity -- to be talking about playoffs," Holliday said.

Given the Dolphins' recent history, it does have a strange ring to it. In the last two Decembers, they have lost six of eight games and gone 0-4 on the road. Two of the road losses were at Buffalo, where they've been outscored, 59-17, including 21-0 in 2006.

It also should be pointed out that, although it's a Bills home game, the Dolphins will face Buffalo on Sunday under a roof at Toronto's Rogers Centre. Rather than dealing with temperatures in the 20s and the distinct possibility of snow at the Bills' regular home of Ralph Wilson Stadium, the Dolphins will have conditions similar to what they enjoy in South Florida. The temperature will be 72 degrees. There will be no wind, no precipitation, and, presumably, far less of a home-field advantage for the Bills.

A couple of Bills season-ticket holders were so upset about the loss of whatever edge the weather might have brought that they began an online petition in hopes of convincing Bills owner Ralph Wilson and members of the Rogers Group to open the roof. Their efforts were for naught because, for one thing, the roof remains locked after the Rodger Centre's primary occupants, baseball's Toronto Blue Jays, finish their season. For another, the field's drainage system isn't designed to handle the type of weather that Toronto typically gets this time of year.

As far as Miami's players are concerned, playing indoors is a significant plus.

"For us, that was definitely a win, equaling the playing field on the road," Holliday said. "I'm excited about it. When I'm looking at our schedule and I get down toward the end, in December, and I'm looking at Kansas City, the Jets, Buffalo, you're talking about possibly three very, very cold games. When you're going into Buffalo (late in the season), you don't know if it's going to snow, you don't know if the wind's going to be swirling. As a fan, I understand; you want that edge. But why not let (the weather) be neutral, about 65-70 degrees, go out and play ball?

"But we're not taking it for granted. Those guys are hungry. They need a win, they've had some tough breaks, and they're playing for their season. We're going to get their best shot. For us, we have to look at this as a must win."

It's a far cry from what the Dolphins were looking at before their Week 14 game of a year ago, which was for the season to be over.

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