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Why the Dolphins are a legitimate playoff contender

After winning at Denver on Sunday, Dolphins players and coaches went to a place that an organization headed by the master of premature-celebration-avoidance wouldn't figure to allow them to go.

Not this early, at least.

But there they were in and around the visitor's dressing room, talking about the possibility of reaching the playoffs. Were they speaking out of turn and risking the wrath of Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells? You know Parcells, the guy who is so fond of telling anyone who gushes over an impressive performance by a young player, "Let's not put him in Canton just yet."

Brian Baldinger chat

The Dolphins can win the AFC East, says Brian Baldinger. And there are many reasons why Miami has a shot at a worst-to-first turnaround. Chat transcript ...

If that were the case, coach Tony Sparano, who functions as a clone of Parcells, wouldn't have been part of any postseason conversation. Nor would general manager Jeff Ireland or the various players who weighed in on the subject. But they were.

It wasn't a case of the Dolphins already putting themselves in the playoffs. They were simply acknowledging that after winning their last two games to go to 4-4, they have a shot at something that seemed impossible after last year's 1-15 finish.

It is possible this season and here's why:

» The Dolphins are only a game behind the three other teams in the AFC East -- New England, the Jets, and Buffalo -- and have beaten the Patriots and Bills.

» They have a smart, efficient quarterback in Chad Pennington running a balanced offense that allows him to utilize a new difference-making weapon each week. In Week 8, it was Ted Ginn Jr.'s 175-yard receiving effort that helped dispose of the Bills. In Week 9, it was Greg Camarillo's 11 receptions that helped sink the Broncos.

Carucci's midseason superlatives

Top offensive player:Drew Brees, QB, New Orleans

(Quarter season: Jay Cutler, QB, Denver)

Top defensive player: Albert Haynesworth, DT, Tennessee

(Quarter season: Same)

Top offensive rookie:Matt Ryan, QB, Atlanta

(Quarter season: DeSean Jackson, WR, Philadelphia)

Top defensive rookie: Chris Horton, S, Washington

(Quarter season: Same)

Comeback player: Jake Delhomme, QB, Carolina

(Quarter season: Marcus Stroud, DT, Buffalo)

Top coach:Jeff Fisher, Tennessee

(Quarter season: Jim Zorn, Washington)

Biggest surprise: Miami

(Quarter season: Same)

Biggest disappointment: Dallas

(Quarter season: Cleveland)

» They have a steadily improving defense that has found a new sack master to replace Jason Taylor -- Joey Porter, whose 11.5 sacks are the most by a Dolphins player through the first eight games of a season. Porter's dominant play is a reflection of his tremendous comfort in the 3-4 scheme, which the Dolphins switched to this season.

Other 4-4 teams with hope

The Dolphins aren't the only .500 club with legitimate playoff aspirations. Here are the others:

» The Colts. With their victory against the Patriots on Sunday night, they responded well to a desperate situation. Granted, the Pats made multiple blunders, at times hardly resembling a well-oiled Bill Belichick machine, to help the Colts' cause. Still, it was hard not to be impressed with Peyton Manning doing as much deft game management as playmaking. Putting pressure on the Patriots' banged-up secondary with a three-receiver scheme, he got the ball to Anthony Gonzalez and Dallas Clark, as well as to mainstays Reggie Wayne and Marvin Harrison. The Colts also held up remarkably well given that they were missing their starting cornerbacks. They might not be able to catch the 8-0 Titans for the AFC South championship, but they're in the hunt in a very wide-open AFC playoff picture.

» The Packers. Pushing the unbeaten Titans to overtime at Tennessee is a significant accomplishment. Despite his red-zone failures against one of the best defenses in the league, Aaron Rodgers remains an effective quarterback. And despite its overtime collapse, the Packers' defense remains fairly solid. With Kyle Orton sidelined by an ankle injury, the Bears' one-game lead in the NFC North is tenuous at best. If the Packers are going to take it away, they need to rebound with a victory at Minnesota in Week 10.

» The Vikings. After a gritty win over Houston, the Vikings remain in the hunt to win their division. Gus Frerotte is shaky at quarterback, but Adrian Peterson's running still gives them a difference-making force on offense. The biggest of their substantial defensive investments, Jared Allen, is starting to pay off in a big way. The Vikings will have a defining game for their playoff hopes when they face the Packers, to whom they lost in Week 1.

» The Saints. With Drew Brees and their ultra-prolific passing game, the Saints are capable of beating anyone. They'll have a hard time catching Carolina for the NFC South championship. The Buccaneers and Falcons also have managed to gain a slight edge over the Saints in the division. The Saints aren't helped by having one of the worst pass defenses in the league, but they still are likely to remain in the thick of the wild-card battle until the very end of the season. And there is no ruling out a collapse by the Panthers, who have a history of being unable to handle success.

In Flacco the Ravens trust

Through most of the first seven games of the season, Ravens offensive coordinator Cam Cameron had handled Joe Flacco pretty much like a typical rookie quarterback. Cameron did his best to help minimize Flacco's chances for mistakes by having him throw mostly safe, high-percentage passes and keeping the ball on the ground when the Ravens were near the goal line.

That changed dramatically in Sunday's win over the Browns.

Cameron and coach John Harbaugh trusted Flacco to challenge the Browns' pass defense, even though it entered the game ranking a respectable 10th in the NFL. With Cleveland daring the rookie to throw from the start by crowding the line of scrimmage, Flacco obliged. He came out slinging and ended up completing 17 of 29 passes for 248 yards and a pair of touchdowns, and had no interceptions, on the way to leading the Ravens to their third victory in a row.

The performance has clearly given Baltimore's coaches greater confidence in Flacco's ability to handle a heavier and riskier passing load. Although rookie running back Ray Rice helps provide good balance to the offense, the Ravens know they will need to be able to rely on their young quarterback's arm and decision-making against much tougher opponents left on the schedule ... such as the New York Giants in Week 11 and the Eagles in Week 12.

Monday night musings

» Winning in prime time at Washington is a mammoth accomplishment. But the better news for the Steelers could very well be that Byron Leftwich gives them a competent replacement for Ben Roethlisberger, who missed the second half with a shoulder injury.

Leftwich demonstrated he could very well be more than that, which would be critical if Roethlisberger ends up missing any significant time. Leftwich showed off his cannon of an arm. He moved around the pocket and made plays, just as Roethlisberger does. If anything, he helped give the Steelers' offense a spark that Big Ben didn't provide through most of the first half.

Leftwich also didn't seem hampered in the least by his notoriously long windup before throwing. The motion tends to allow defensive backs to often get a jump on his throws, but he consistently got the ball out of his hand quickly against the Redskins. His delivery, in fact, was quicker than Roethlisberger's. Leftwich also didn't hamper his blockers, the way Roethlisberger often does, but waiting until the very last possible moment to make his throws.

Leftwich was poised, comfortable, and loose. He played like a one-time franchise quarterback feeling no pressure as the understudy. But if he has to become the starter for any length of time, the Steelers appear to be in good shape.

» There are some games when being efficient and careful with the football aren't enough. Jason Campbell and the Redskins discovered as much against the top-rated defense in the NFL.

On a night when MVP candidate Clinton Portis found little running room, Campbell needed to make much more happen than he did with his arm. The Steelers did an excellent job of limiting the impact of his most effective targets.

Even when Campbell tried to find something over the middle, he often threw the ball too high. Campbell clearly wasn't comfortable with the tremendous pressure the Steelers were able to generate as well as with their variety of defensive looks and coverages.

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