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 DAVIE, Fla. (AP) -The phrase sounds funny, like one of those jokes late-night comedians were telling at this time last year: ``first-place Miami Dolphins.''
It's no joke, folks.
Former laughingstock Miami claimed a share of the lead in the AFC East by beating Buffalo while the New York Jets were being upset at San Francisco. That left the Jets and Dolphins at 8-5, along with the New England Patriots, who defeated Seattle.
``Some of the moons lined up just a little bit again for us,'' Miami coach Tony Sparano said.
The Dolphins have indeed been fortunate, suffering few injuries and benefiting from one of the NFL's easiest schedules. But they're not winning merely because they're lucky.
ement for a team that was 0-13 a year ago this week en route to a 1-15 finish.
``We have an opportunity,'' cornerback Andre Goodman said. ``That's all you can ask for.''
The Dolphins have won six of their past seven games, and they have a three-game road winning streak. Sunday's 16-3 victory to complete a season sweep of Buffalo was thorough, with Miami controlling the ball for 37 1/2 minutes and allowing only 163 yards, the best effort by the defense since 2003.
Veterans Joey Porter, Vonnie Holliday, Jason Ferguson, Will Allen, Yeremiah Bell and Anthony Fasano were among those contributing to the latest victory.
``I challenged some of the veteran players,'' Sparano said Monday. ``I told them for the last couple of weeks, as the stakes got higher, there were some guys who maybe their (stat) lines weren't as good as they could be. All of a sudden I saw a different group of people out there yesterday. I saw those guys come to the front of the class.''
As a result, the Dolphins control their destiny. They'll be favored this week at home against San Francisco (5-8) and next week at Kansas City (2-11). Then comes a potential showdown in the regular-season finale against the Jets in New York.
``It's real exciting,'' rookie receiver Davone Bess said. ``We've got to stay hungry. This journey isn't over.''
ams in the AFC have a better record than the Dolphins, but if they win out, they won't have to worry about the scramble for a wild-card berth.
``When you start relying on other people and those formulas, that ain't so good,'' Sparano said. ``You need to take care of your business, and right now that's the 49ers.''
Doubts the Dolphins are playoff-caliber persist, in part because memories of last year are so fresh. One reward for the miserable season was a soft 2008 schedule, and Miami is in first place despite beating only two teams that have winning records: New England and Denver. The past four wins have come against teams that are a combined 13-39. And the Dolphins caught a break by playing the road game against Buffalo at a neutral site indoors in Toronto, rather than on the frigid shores of Lake Erie.
While Miami has taken advantage of the schedule, it's easy to discount a team with no experience in a playoff race. Only two players - Bell and running back Ricky Williams - were with the Dolphins the last time they were a December contender, in 2003.
Will Sparano's surprising team finish strong? He can't wait to find out.
``I'm curious,'' he said. ``It's the fun part about coming to work right now. The stakes get bigger and bigger. I'm always curious to see how this group responds. I learn an awful lot from this team every week. The last couple of weeks they've done a nice job focusing on the `now' and not worrying about anything down the road. We're going to continue to do that this week.''
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