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MIAMI -- Although the Miami Dolphins wouldn't come out and say it, their reaction conveyed a unified belief loud and clear.
They know they should have destroyed the Oakland Raiders on Sunday afternoon.
But they didn't. In fact, the Dolphins were forced to rely on Chad Pennington's final-drive heroics and the foot of an undrafted rookie who said before Sunday his most significant winning kick came against Cal Poly.
"Should it have been that close? I don't know," Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano said diplomatically after his team eked out a 17-15 victory at home.
|Kirby Lee/US Presswire|
|Dolphins QB Chad Pennington threw for 174 yards in the win.|
Dan Carpenter kicked a 38-yard field goal with 38 seconds left to avoid what would have been a disturbing Dolphins defeat.
Their defense battered the Raiders and didn't allow an offensive touchdown. But the Dolphins trailed with 4:30 to play because their shoddy special-teams coverage negated everything the Dolphins did well. Johnnie Lee Higgins returned a punt 93 yards for a touchdown to give Oakland a 15-14 lead.
Miami towered over the Raiders in the box score. The Dolphins had more first downs (20-11), they outgained the Raiders 382 yards to 186 and ran for 222 yards. They converted 42 percent of their third downs to the Raiders' 18 percent. The Raiders had seven penalties. The Dolphins held the ball for five more minutes.
"I don't have to look at the numbers," Dolphins defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "Playing in a game like that, where easily this game could've been over earlier ... We've got to find a way as a team, when we get in that situation, to separate ourselves.
"But as ugly as it is, it's a win."
Yes, the Dolphins have won four in a row and are off to their first 6-4 (or better) start since 2003. They're one game behind the AFC East-leading New York Jets and tied with the New England Patriots.
But the Dolphins have taken their past two games by two points apiece, beating teams quarterbacked by Seneca Wallace and JaMarcus Russell.
"We keep letting teams come back into the game and have last-second wins," Dolphins linebacker Joey Porter said. "That's something you don't want to be hoping on every time.
"There's a lot of good football teams out there. You get the right quarterback back there and he can turn that thing around and then you'll be coming into the locker room losers."
The Dolphins crammed the Raiders on the game's opening series and made a statement drive of their own, moving the ball 93 yards for a touchdown.
Miami's bleary-eyed opponents traveled from the Pacific to the Eastern Time Zone. Teams making that flight went into Sunday with a 0-12 record and were being outscored by an average of 29-16.
"The lesson? When you got a team on its heels, you got to go for the jugular," Porter said. "Doesn't matter who it is. On defense, we felt like we were dominating them pretty good. We were controlling them. We were dictating what they were going to do. We didn't feel like the game was supposed to be that close."
With that in mind, here are three reasons for Dolfans to be excited and three reasons for them to worry about their team's playoff hopes.
1. Pennington is a clutch quarterback. He coolly marched Miami down the field on the winning drive. He completed 5 of 6 attempts for 51 yards.
The biggest throw came after the two-minute warning on a fourth-and-5 play. He went to his third read, Ted Ginn, on an underneath route, and threaded a perfect pass for a 7-yard gain.
Three runs later, Carpenter kicked his field goal.
"I was smiling and talking to [cornerback] Will Allen like I already knew we was about to go down and get a field goal," Porter said, "because I just feel like our offense -- we practice so many two-minute drives during the week that they don't even panic -- they got ice in their veins.
"Chad's just out there calling the calls, getting everybody lined up. I knew they could execute the plays."
2. Miami's defense played masterfully. Oakland came to Dolphin Stadium last year and rushed for 299 yards. This year, Miami gave up just 70 rushing yards.
"The front seven had to step up to the challenge," Dolphins nose tackle Jason Ferguson said. "The coaches put that out all week long: 'If they win, it's going to be our fault.' "
The Dolphins held the Raiders' offense to two field goals. Miami allowed only 186 total yards, its stingiest game since Week 2 of 2006.
Miami recorded a season-high six sacks. Porter and Holliday each had 1.5.
3. The Dolphins are learning how to win. They were 0-6 in games decided by three points or fewer last season, infamously going 1-15 overall. This year they are 2-1, with both victories coming in the past two weeks.
"I think we've just matured as a team," Dolphins running back Ronnie Brown said. "Mentally, we know we can win and get into those situations and be pretty confident. I think confidence takes you a long way."
1. Special teams nearly doomed the Dolphins. Take everything the Dolphins did well and add them up. Poor coverage darn near erased all of the positives.
The Dolphins made a concerted effort to be great on special teams. Many of the free agents they signed were to bolster special teams. They brought in guys such as Charlie Anderson, Nathan Jones, Boomer Grigsby and Keith Davis and a few others who couldn't make the team.
They went into Sunday allowing an average of 28 yards a kick return and 14.3 yards a punt return.
"Tackling and penalties are killing us," said running back and special-teams player Patrick Cobbs. "We're not making the tackles, and we're making boneheaded plays on returns. So those two things are beating us up right now."
2. Special teams nearly doomed the Dolphins (Take 2). "The thing about special teams, it's made up of a lot of defensive guys," Holliday said. "So it's not just a special-teams thing. When you talk about special teams, you talk about defense and offense. A lot of times it's more defense.
"This is a team problem, something we've got to find a way to get solved. I made a joke about it earlier, but if it means that my old behind has got to run down on kickoffs to make a tackle, so be it. I will."
3. Special teams nearly doomed the Dolphins (Take 3). Sparano sounded befuddled when asked if he will make adjustments on special teams.
"No one is more disappointed in that than I am, but I've got to take some responsibility for it, and I've got to find out a way to get it fixed," Sparano said. "We'll go back to the board this week, and we'll work our tails off and try to get it right."