AFC East: Jake Grove

Draft Watch: AFC East

March, 10, 2011
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NFC Draft Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Each Thursday leading up to the NFL draft (April 28-30), the ESPN.com NFL blog network will take a division-by-division look at key aspects of the draft. Today's topic: biggest team needs.

Buffalo Bills

Where would you like to start?

Offense? How about left tackle, right tackle, tight end and -- if there's a great one still on the draft board -- quarterback?

Defense? How about the line, outside linebacker, inside linebacker, cornerback and safety?

Special teams? OK, the Bills are fine there.

But kicker, punter and running back are about the only positions the Bills can draft third overall and not help themselves.

The most pressing needs, however, are tackle and outside linebacker. The Bills haven't drafted an offensive tackle earlier than the fifth round since taking Mike Williams in the first round in 2002, and their line play shows that. They have tried to coach up late draft picks (Demetrius Bell, Ed Wang) and rummaged through free agency (Cornell Green, Mansfield Wrotto, Jonathan Scott, Jamon Meredith) rather than acquire that prized blindside protector.

The Bills were so desperate at outside linebacker they plucked the injury-ravaged Shawne Merriman off waivers last year and then, even though he got hurt again minutes into his first workout, gave him a contract extension.

They can't bank on Merriman to anchor their pass rush. Yet even if he can contribute, they'll need more help. The Bills recorded 27 sacks last year. Only three teams had fewer.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins probably will need a running back. They could stand to upgrade at quarterback if they can.

But they definitely need interior offensive linemen.

They recently re-signed left guard Richie Incognito to an extension, but they still have problems at center and right guard. Although they have two solid book-end tackles in Pro perennial Bowl left tackle Jake Long and veteran Vernon Carey, they've been a mess in between for the past three years.

The Dolphins need to upgrade their power running game. Despite having a capable and healthy backfield tandem in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season, the Dolphins ranked 21st in rushing yards, 29th in yards per carry and 29th in rushing touchdowns.

A stud running back certainly can help, and the Dolphins might have little choice but to take one with their 15th selection. Brown's and Williams' contracts are up. That's why so many draft analysts project the Dolphins will take Alabama running back Mark Ingram and then address the O-line later.

New England Patriots

Funny how things work for the Patriots when it comes to draft picks. The reigning AFC East champs might have the fewest needs but have the most draft picks at their disposal.

The Patriots went 14-2 last season and own two draft choices in each of the first three rounds. So the Patriots have the flexibility to go any number of directions.

The most obvious need is outside linebacker. The Patriots' entire outside linebacking corps mustered 13.5 sacks last year. Dolphins outside linebacker Cameron Wake generated 14 sacks all by himself.

Offensive line is another concern because there are so many question marks. Right guard Stephen Neal retired. Left guard Logan Mankins is upset. Left tackle Matt Light isn't signed. Nick Kaczur is coming off serious back surgery. The timing is right to bring in some fresh O-line blood.

The Patriots had one of the NFL's most entertaining backfields last year, with BenJarvus Green-Ellis rushing for over 1,000 yards and Danny Woodhead making the Jets look foolish for cutting him. But each running back has his limitations, and the Patriots could be on the lookout for an all-purpose back adept at catching a pass and converting a third-and-short.

New York Jets

The Jets are in a weird spot. They finished the season as a team with talent at virtually every position.

But they have a crowded group of free agents and couldn't bring themselves to sign any (aside from giving inside linebacker David Harris the franchise tag) until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place. The Jets want to know what the new salary cap is before moving forward.

That leaves a lot of loose ends for the Jets heading into the draft. Will they need a receiver to replace Santonio Holmes or Braylon Edwards? A cornerback to replace Antonio Cromartie?

The needs we can bank on are outside linebacker and safety.

The Jets must generate a better pass rush and still need to recover from the Vernon Gholston pick that set them back. Outside linebacker Bryan Thomas is competent, but no star. He led the Jets with just six sacks. Calvin Pace had 5.5 sacks. The recently released Jason Taylor added five.

Safety is an area of emphasis because they could have stood to upgrade even before Brodney Pool, Eric Smith and James Ihedigbo became free agents. Jim Leonhard is a Rex Ryan favorite but recovering from a broken shin.

Dolphins are malcontents on interior O-line

September, 9, 2010
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There's a commonly held belief the Miami Dolphins boast one of the NFL's best offensive lines.

They have one of the game's best left tackles in Jake Long. Right tackle Vernon Carey is effective.

But all the clutter between those bookends makes me wonder how the Dolphins can be considered elite. In the three years since Bill Parcells assumed control of football operations and hired offensive-line coach Tony Sparano to run the show, the Dolphins have turned over their interior with alarming frequency.

The Dolphins on Thursday released center Jake Grove. The Dolphins identified him as a critical upgrade last year and signed him to a four-year, $29 million contract.

Now Grove is gone, just like their big free-agent signing from 2008, left guard Justin Smiley. The Dolphins signed Smiley for five years and $25 million. He lasted two seasons.

They'll use their third center over the past three opening days and have constantly changed guards.

No other unit in football depends on chemistry as much as an offensive line, but the Dolphins have been malcontents with their centers and guards.

Let's take a look at O-line personnel the Dolphins have rototilled since Parcells, Sparano and general manager Jeff Ireland came aboard with emphasis on starters.

Assistant coach

Hired offensive line coach Mike Maser in January 2008, fired him in January 2009.

Hired offensive line coach Dave DeGuglielmo in January 2009.

Left guard

Smiley started 12 games in 2008, 12 games in 2009 (released).

Andy Alleman started five games, including postseason, in 2008 (traded).

Nate Garner started four games in 2009 (injured reserve).

Richie Incognito projected 2010 starter.

Center

Samson Satele started 16 games in 2008 (traded).

Al Johnson was 2008 backup (released).

Grove started 10 games in 2009 (released).

Joe Berger started six games in 2009, projected 2010 starter.

Right guard

Donald Thomas opened 2008 season with job, started 12 games in 2009 (released).

Ikechuku Ndukwe started 15 games in 2008 (traded).

Garner started four games in 2009 (injured reserve).

John Jerry projected 2010 starter.

Others

Guard Shawn Murphy, 2008 fourth-round draft pick deactivated all 22 games (released).

Center/guard Steve McKinney played zero games in 2008 (released).

Guard Evan Mathis played seven games in 2008 (released).

Guard Matt McChesney played one game in 2008 (injured reserve/released).

Guard Andrew Hartline played two games in 2009 (released, practice squad).

Guard Cory Procter signed, released last week and re-signed Thursday.

Tackle/guard Pat McQuistan acquired last week in a trade.

O-line a lingering concern for Dolphins

August, 17, 2010
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From the moment Bill Parcells took over the Miami Dolphins and began drawing up plans for his offensive line, the interior three blockers have been a volatile mix.

The Dolphins are entering their third season under Parcells and head coach Tony Sparano, whose professional foundation was built on the offensive line.

In a short time, the Dolphins are on their second O-line assistant coach, perhaps their third different starting center (Samson Satele to Jake Grove to Joe Berger) and maybe their sixth and seventh different starting guards.

Miami's interior line became even more unstable in the past few days.

Nate Garner, who started four games at left guard and four games at right guard last year, underwent foot surgery that reportedly will sideline him at least eight weeks. He had surgery on the same foot over the offseason.

Third-round draft choice John Jerry, the starter at right guard in Saturday night's preseason opener, also is hurt. He suffered a knee injury at the end of Monday's practice and was unable to participate Tuesday.

Richie Incognito and Donald Thomas are battling for the left guard spot, although Thomas can be switched to the right side if Jerry's injury becomes an issue. Thomas has started at right guard the past two opening days, but he's injury-prone. Cory Procter practiced at right guard Tuesday.

Thankfully for Miami fans, Jake Long and Vernon Carey comprise one of the NFL's best tackle sets.

A look at Miami's first depth chart

August, 9, 2010
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Depth charts should be taken with a grain of salt, especially in the preseason.

Coaches have a tendency to fill one out and then disregard it after a couple days of thought.

But maybe there's something to be gleaned from Miami Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano's first depth chart of training camp. We get an idea of who has the edge right before the preseason games begin.

Sparano said he tried to "put it together the best way I could" Monday morning in advance of Saturday night's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Sun Life Stadium.

The interior line has been a mosh pit of competition. Sparano listed Joe Berger and not incumbent Jake Grove as the first-team center, Richie Incognito as the left guard ahead of Donald Thomas and rookie John Jerry as the right guard.

Brian Hartline is the first receiver opposite Brandon Marshall.

Tyler Thigpen is second at quarterback ahead of Pat White. Injured veteran Chad Pennington is fourth.

On defense, there are no surprises. First-round pick Jared Odrick is listed as the starting right end. Second-round pick Koa Misi is the strong-side outside linebacker, with Cameron Wake on the weak side.

Camp Confidential: Miami Dolphins

August, 6, 2010
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 13

DAVIE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins might be the best NFL team people don't notice.

They're often overlooked in the AFC East. The New England Patriots have at least tied for the division's best record in nine straight seasons, and the big-talking New York Jets, coming off an appearance in the conference title game, are a fashionable Super Bowl pick.

Miami shouldn't be discounted.

Head coach Tony Sparano, who dropped 55 pounds in the offseason, wants his players to be hungry. The theme of training camp is "Feed the Wolf," a slogan he put on T-shirts in response to the Dolphins sliding from 11-5 and a division championship to a losing record last year.

"I had a meeting with the group and kind of got into them a little bit during practice about 7-9 not being good enough and how this football team shouldn’t be fat," Sparano explained. "They should be starving.

"One of the things that we talk about is feeding the wolf with little successes every day. ... We feed the wolf when we do something good, and that's what our guys understand. Small successes will lead to bigger successes down the way."

So when it comes to the AFC East race, dare we call Miami a sheep in wolf's silk-screened clothing?

THREE HOT ISSUES

Brandon Marshall
Steve Mitchell/US PresswireThe Dolphins hope the addition of Brandon Marshall can improve the passing game.
1. What will the Chad Henne-to-Brandon Marshall connection mean to the offense? The Dolphins have been all about the ground game since Bill Parcells and Sparano took over in 2008. Ronnie Brown, Ricky Williams, rugged offensive line, the Wildcat, possession receivers ... Run, run, run.

Last year, the Dolphins ranked fourth in run offense and 20th in pass offense. Henne threw the fewest touchdown passes of any quarterback with at least 400 attempts. Just five of those touchdowns went to wide receivers.

Marshall's arrival can change that dramatically. While the Dolphins will continue to rely on their ground game, Henne now has a go-to target on third-and-critical or in the red zone. Marshall's amazing talents are on display every day at camp. He has sensational hands, outleaps helpless defenders and can snatch any ball remotely in his area.

Don't expect Marshall to extend his streak to four seasons of at least 100 receptions, but his presence gives Henne the kind of target who opens up all sorts of possibilities the Dolphins haven't had in years.

2. Will unproven outside linebackers provide enough of a pass rush with Joey Porter and Jason Taylor out the door? The Dolphins' 44 sacks last season tied for third in the NFL. But four of their top six contributors, totaling 28 sacks, either are no longer on the team (Porter and Taylor), playing a new position (Randy Starks) or out for year (Phillip Merling).

The Dolphins are counting on Cameron Wake and rookie Koa Misi, a pair of tantalizing-but-unverified pass-rushers, to handle most of the workload. Starks has the most sacks of any returning player with seven. But he has been moved to nose tackle, a position where Pro Bowlers record one or two sacks a year.

Wake's 5.5 sacks were next on the list. By the looks of his performances in camp, he'll be a force on passing downs even if he can't stop the run as effectively as the Dolphins would prefer. Misi, a second-round draft choice, has handled first-team reps with aplomb.

Richie Incognito
Doug Murray/Icon SMIFree agent Richie Incognito is one of the players battling for a starting spot on the offensive line.
3. What will the interior offensive line look like? The Dolphins should have the makings of a nasty offensive line, but the inner three positions aren't solidified.

The Dolphins have had trouble settling on a center. Two years ago, they signed free agent Jake Grove and traded away Samson Satele. Now Grove is alternating first-team reps with Joe Berger for a spot that's up for grabs.

At guard, incumbent Donald Thomas, third-round draft choice John Jerry and free-agent signee Richie Incognito are fighting -- in Incognito's case, literally -- for jobs.

Sparano, an O-line aficionado at his core, wants his center and guards to be more than maulers in the run game. They must be better pass protectors.

"People think the left tackle's the only guy that [pass blocks on an island]," Sparano said. "But that's not true when you're turning the protection away from one of them. So to identify who can really handle those one-on-one battles is going to be important for us. That to me is what has to get better."

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Ikaika Alama-Francis wasn't good enough to stick with the 0-16 Detroit Lions. He was their second-round draft choice in 2007, but they cut the young defensive end after two seasons. He was on the street for two months before the Dolphins signed him in November. Alama-Francis was a healthy scratch for all six games he was on the roster and an afterthought heading into the offseason.

But with three workouts left until the Dolphins broke for the summer, they switched him to outside linebacker. Alama-Francis weighed 290 when he joined the Dolphins in November. He's an explosive 275 now.

"He looks like a linebacker out there, moving around right now," Sparano said. "He's a handful in the rush. He sets the edge of the defense pretty well, strong guy and very, very smart. I like what he's done."

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

Quarterback Pat White hasn't shown any obvious signs of development to contradict the general belief Miami wasted a second-round draft pick on him last year. White missed the first day of training camp because of unexplained personal reasons. One report, quoting a family member, suggested White wouldn't play this year. He arrived the next day, but he hasn't shown much.

White has gotten limited reps, buried behind Henne, Chad Pennington and Tyler Thigpen. When given the opportunity, White's passes are scattershot, albeit more accurate than last year.

Merling would have been the easy choice here had he made it to training camp. Before he could get there, he was charged with felony assault of his pregnant girlfriend and suffered a season-ending Achilles injury.

Patrick Turner
Steve Mitchell/US PresswirePatrick Turner has had his ups and downs during training camp.
OBSERVATION DECK

  • You can't comprehend the size of some players until you see them in person. Marshall and Karlos Dansby are two of those guys. We can lose perspective when we're inundated with athlete heights and weights that are often fudged, but Marshall (6-4, 230) and Dansby (6-4, 250) are monstrous for their positions.
  • Starks' transition from defensive end to nose tackle has been interesting. He's small for the job at 6-foot-3 and 305 pounds, but his speed and athleticism have created problems for the Dolphins' O-line.
  • Second-year receiver Patrick Turner is having an erratic summer. When I first laid eyes on him at rookie camp in 2009, I immediately was struck with how great his hands were. Turner made catching a football seem so effortless. He has been plagued by drops throughout this training camp, and when he does make a catch his teammates sound overly encouraging -- "Way to go, Pat!" -- to keep his confidence up. Turner was inactive for 14 games last year because he has no special-teams value. If the Dolphins can't trust him as a receiver, he'll have a hard time getting on the field.
  • Free safety Chris Clemons, a fifth-round draft choice last year, has looked like he belongs. The position was viewed as a question mark when the Dolphins axed Gibril Wilson, but Clemons has had some bright moments.
  • I'd be shocked if any star has signed more autographs in training camp than Marshall. After every open session, he slowly walks along the fence and puts his signature on every piece of memorabilia or scrap of paper thrust in front of him. Maybe he's doing his penance for past misdeeds, but Dolfans have no reason but to love him so far.
  • Tough break for running back Kory Sheets, who suffered a season-ending right Achilles injury while returning a kickoff Wednesday. He had a nice shot to make the roster and made one of the most eye-popping plays I saw during my stay. On Monday night, he exploded through the offensive line and got into the second level with such speed, his teammates reflexively screamed "Whooooo!"
  • Veteran cornerback Will Allen, rebounding from a knee injury, has been the team's nickelback. The Dolphins want sophomores Vontae Davis and Sean Smith to stay on the field. Although Allen would be a quality contributor, his contract could put him on the bubble. He has two years left on his contract with base salaries that total $10.7 million.
  • Two years ago, Greg Camarillo was the Dolphins' best receiver. Now he looks like the fourth receiver behind Marshall, Brian Hartline and Davone Bess. That's a nice problem for Miami to have.
  • Like the Buffalo Bills, the Dolphins aren't fooling around with extra legs in camp. They know Dan Carpenter will be their kicker and Brandon Fields will be their punter and aren't bothering to push them.
  • Just talking out loud here because I realize frustrating receiver Ted Ginn had to go, but what if the Dolphins still had his speed to stretch the field with Marshall? That would have been a challenge for opposing defenses.

To splurge or to scrimp? Take a position

June, 15, 2010
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In an analysis for ESPN Insider subscribers, Football Outsiders managing editor Bill Barnwell broke down the bingers and the penny-pinchers by position Insider to answer a few questions.
Do owners that spend more at a given spot actually see a return on their investment, though? And do the relative cheapskates breeze through, saving money without sacrificing performance? It depends on the position.

Not surprisingly, Barnwell's piece shows the Buffalo Bills spent the least at quarterback last year, while the Miami Dolphins splurged the most on the offensive line and the New York Jets paid the most at linebacker.

Barnwell determines the Bills got what they paid for at quarterback ($3.46 million), with Trent Edwards and Ryan Fitzpatrick having awful seasons.

The Dolphins committed 33 percent of their payroll ($41.65 million) on their offensive line, with left tackle Jake Long the biggest reason. They also forked over big bucks for free agents Justin Smiley and Jake Grove. No other team spent more than $27.7 million. The Dolphins spent more than four times as much as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The Jets sank $30.5 million at linebacker, both inside and outside. They signed free agent Bart Scott last year and Calvin Pace the offseason before. Flop-so-far Vernon Gholston also factors into the sum. But, overall, the money was well-spent. The Jets finished No. 1 in several major defensive categories last year.

Patriots get four compensatory picks

March, 22, 2010
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- The NFL has awarded a league-high four compensatory draft choices to the New England Patriots.

The Miami Dolphins received one. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets didn't get any.

All the picks were revealed Monday night at the NFL owners meetings at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes.

Compensatory picks are awarded to clubs based on a secret formula more guarded than Colonel Sanders' recipe. We know the formula involves the number of free agents gained and lost the previous offseason and how well those players performed the ensuing season. We think the formula factors in the players' salaries, playing time and awards.

New England lost five qualifying free agents (running back LaMont Jordan, fullback Heath Evans, receiver Jabar Gaffney, linebacker Larry Izzo and long-snapper Lonie Paxton) and signed only one (safety Brandon McGowan).

The NFL compensated the Patriots with one sixth-round pick and three seventh-round picks. The selections are Nos. 205, 247, 248 and 250.

Miami lost two qualifying free agents (cornerback Andre Goodman and safety Renaldo Hill) and signed two (center Jake Grove and center Joe Berger).

The Dolphins were given a seventh-round pick, No. 252.

Neal, Mangold offer inside pass protection

March, 4, 2010
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In examining how effectively every NFL offensive lineman pass blocks, ProFootballFocus.com analyst Khaled Elsayed didn't limit himself to the tackles.

On Wednesday, we took a gander at Elsayed's research on the ultimate pass-protectors. The AFC East featured three of 2009's best tackles in a metric called "pass blocking productivity" of every offensive lineman.

[+] EnlargeStephen Neal
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesPotential free-agent-to-be Stephen Neal was ranked as the fourth-best guard at pass-protecting.
ProFootballFocus.com devised a formula that essentially takes the number of sacks and quarterback hits allowed plus pressures and divides them by the number of pass plays.

Elsayed also applied that equation to the interior linemen. AFC East grunts excelled there, too.

Buffalo Bills

Geoff Hangartner came in last at center, but he was flanked by rookie guards in 2009. ProFootballFocus.com had Hangartner down for three sacks, four QB hits and 17 pressures.

Those rookies, Andy Levitre and Eric Wood, graded well.

Levitre was in the middle of the left guard pack. He allowed two sacks, nine QB hits and 11 pressures. Wood was farther down the list among right guards. In 10 games he gave up three sacks, two QB hits and a dozen pressures.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins had two centers in the top nine. Usual starter Jake Grove was ninth (zero sacks, one QB hit, seven pressures), while injury replacement Joe Berger was fifth (zero sack, one QB hit, four pressures).

Justin Smiley was ninth among left guards with three sacks, five QB hits and eight pressures. Nate Garner was second in limited action on the right side. He was blamed for only one sack, two QB hits and two pressures.

New England Patriots

Stephen Neal ranked fourth among all guards. ProFootballFocus.com charged him with two sacks, one QB hit and seven pressures.

Logan Mankins ranked 13th among all guards and sixth among left guards. Mankins yielded two sacks, three QB hits and 13 pressures.

Dan Koppen, however, was in the lower third at center, ranking eighth from the bottom. He allowed zero sacks, but had eight QB hits and 10 pressures.

New York Jets

Perennial Pro Bowl guard Alan Faneca was way down the list. A dozen left guards had a worse PBP rating, but only two yielded more sacks than Faneca did. He was charged with six sacks, two QB hits and 15 pressures.

Brandon Moore was ninth among all guards and sixth on the right side with one sack, two QB hits and eight pressures.

Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold ranked fourth at his position. He gave up one sack, two QB hits and five pressures.

Elsayed was kind enough to share the spreadsheet he used to track these stats, and with a few clicks of the mouse I was able to merge all of the positions and sort them by PBP rating. Obviously, centers and guards were the most efficient because they're not victimized by pass-rushers as much.

Mangold ranked highest among all AFC East O-linemen at sixth overall. Berger was seventh and Garner ninth. Neal was 12th, Grove was 15th and Moore was 27th.

Bills left tackle Demetrius Bell ranked last among all NFL offensive linemen in PBP rating.

Calls and Effect: AFC East penalty tracker

December, 19, 2009
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For a considerable chunk of the season, the Buffalo Bills led the NFL in penalties.

They surrendered their status as the least-disciplined team in Week 9 only because they had a bye. When the Bills fired head coach Dick Jauron after Week 10, opponents had accepted 80 penalties, one behind the league-leading Green Bay Packers.

Amazing, then, what the Bills have done in their four weeks under interim coach Perry Fewell.

The Bills have become one of the best-behaved teams and have fallen way down the list to 13th.

The Bills committed 11 penalties in Jauron's final game. Since he was fired and Fewell was promoted, they've elicited six, three, one and three yellow flags.


Of course, Wednesday's addition of St. Louis Rams guard Richie Incognito off the waiver wire might shoot that trend all to hell over the last three games.

Incognito likely will start on the right side against the New England Patriots on Sunday in Ralph Wilson Stadium. The Bills on Friday placed Kendall Simmons on injured reserve.

Incognito is volatile. He has been flagged seven times for 75 yards. He has been cited for unnecessary roughness three times and a personal foul. The Rams waived him because he committed a pair of 15-yarders and got into a heated confrontation with head coach Steve Spagnuolo last Sunday.

Dolphins working on another big rebound

December, 14, 2009
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Last year, the Miami Dolphins pulled off the greatest single-season turnaround in NFL history.

This year, they have the chance to achieve one of the rarest in-season turnarounds since the league went to a 12-team postseason format in 1990.

Only three times since the league adopted its current playoff system has a team sprung back from a 0-3 start to make the tournament. Nobody has done it for 11 years.

Kim Klement/US PRESSWIREChad Henne has gone 7-3 since becoming the Dolphins' starting quarterback in Week 4.



The Dolphins climbed above .500 for the first time all season, built a stronger case for a wild-card berth and remained one game out of first place in the AFC East by handling the Jacksonville Jaguars 14-10 on Sunday.

In the visitors' locker room of Jacksonville Municipal Stadium afterward, Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland allowed himself three minutes to reflect on a season that began so brutally but is being respectably salvaged.

Ireland claimed the nadir wasn't their 0-3 start, but the disheartening loss to the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago. Had the Dolphins won that one as expected, then they would be tied with the New England Patriots atop the division.

"The Buffalo game was the lowest point in the season," Ireland said. "You feel like you should win those games, and generally we have won those games since we've been here. Then you play the New England Patriots well and you got an awful lot of hope.

"Hope's a powerful emotion, and we have it. The other side of that is no hope and nothing to play for. Hope is a powerful emotion that enables you to do incredible things. And we got hope right now."

Dolphins head coach Tony Sparano has gotten his team's helmet above water despite losing 2008 MVP runner-up Chad Pennington to a season-ending shoulder injury the same day they fell to 0-3.

They've also lost Wildcatalyst Ronnie Brown, center Jake Grove, nose tackle Jason Ferguson and top cornerback Will Allen.

"It's testament to what this coaching staff has been able to do," Ireland said. "When it's slipping away, they seem to be able to bring it back. Getting these players up for game after game after game, you go down to Buffalo, bring them back up to New England, it is prideful. The attention to detail that Tony and his staff brings to this team is tremendous."

The Dolphins' final three games are at the Tennessee Titans and then home dates with the Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers. All three opponents are 6-7 and dangerous.

But so are the Dolphins, with such youngsters as quarterback Chad Henne, defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerbacks Vontae Davis and Sean Smith coming into their own, and veteran running back Ricky Williams on the verge of a 1,000-yard season.

"We don't have a large group of superstars," Ireland said. "We know we got to grind it out. I don't know what the players are thinking, but that seems how we play. We try to keep it close, not make a lot of crucial mistakes and then we make plays when it counts.

"Our defense is maturing, which is nice to see. We've played a lot of young guys this year, and they're maturing. The quarterback ... You lose the players that we lost, and then you insert young players at those key positions and you see them mature at a week-in, week-out basis, it's a testament to the coaching staff and the players for buying into the system."

Dolphins, Jets stalk vulnerable Patriots

December, 13, 2009
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Getty Images
Miami's Chad Henne, left and Thomas Jones of the New York Jets are leading their respective teams in commanding ways right now, while Tom Brady and the New England Patriots are clearly struggling.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The Miami Dolphins bottomed out two weeks ago. They couldn't beat the Buffalo Bills. That was that. Grab the proverbial fork and ram it right in the Dolphins' sternums. They were done, out of the playoffs. Time to start planning for 2010.

Unbeknownst to the football universe at that time, the New England Patriots were on the verge of catastrophe -- by their standards anyway. They faltered. Rather than run away with the AFC East, the Patriots went to Land Shark Stadium last week and lost their third game in four tries.

All of a sudden, momentum turned. The Dolphins got back into the hunt. The Patriots appeared wounded, vulnerable.

Those movements continued Sunday.

The surging Dolphins won another game, while the Patriots played like Weebles. They didn't fall down, but the Patriots (8-5) sure did wobble while managing to stay one game ahead of the Dolphins and the New York Jets (each 7-6) with three games to go.

"Hope's a powerful emotion, and we have it," Dolphins general manager Jeff Ireland said after his team beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 14-10. "The other side of that is no hope and nothing to play for.

"Hope is a powerful emotion that enables you to do incredible things. And we got hope right now."

Hope isn't plentiful in New England. While the Patriots probably will make the playoffs, they don't project to last long.

The Patriots have instilled a general queasiness in their fans. They look nothing like the teams that won three Super Bowls and nearly went undefeated just two years ago.

They struggled on their own field to beat the Carolina Panthers, regaining their composure to finally put away an inferior opponent with a backup quarterback in a 20-10 white-knuckler. The game did little to quell anxieties surrounding the Patriots for the past few weeks.

Randy Moss was booed by his home crowd for an uninspiring effort that had Panthers players claiming afterward they made him quit. Moss finished with one reception, which he fumbled away after a 16-yard gain. He also gave up on a Tom Brady pass that was intercepted.

But Moss isn't alone in creating concern. Bill Belichick sent Gillette Stadium into a full cringe when he went for it on fourth down again and didn't convert. And there's still that matter of disgruntled outside linebacker Adalius Thomas, a healthy scratch for the second time this year.

The Dolphins, meanwhile, are on the make. The defending AFC East champs finally might have discovered themselves after an 0-3 start, a 3-5 record at the midpoint and that deplorable loss in Buffalo.

Despite the absences of top players in crucial positions -- quarterback Chad Pennington, top running back Ronnie Brown, center Jake Grove, nose tackle Jason Ferguson, No. 1 cornerback Will Allen -- they have a winning record for the first time.

While the Patriots exhibit shaky tendencies, the Dolphins and Jets are playing with conviction.

"You give this team some light, and our antennas go up," Dolphins nickel back Nate Jones said. "We fight our butts off to achieve a goal. We're in December. We're over .500.

"This team is really building something. We can kind of see we have a chance here to do something big. I love the look in all the guys' eyes when we go out to practice and come out for the game."

The Jets are finding their mojo, too, but it's probably not going to be enough. They won their third straight game with a 26-3 domination of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Jets are tied with the Dolphins, Jaguars and Baltimore Ravens at 7-6.

But the Jets have an arduous schedule to come: Atlanta Falcons, at Indianapolis Colts, Cincinnati Bengals. The Dolphins, holding several tiebreakers thanks to their season sweep of the Jets, will face three more manageable teams: at Tennessee Titans, Houston Texans, Pittsburgh Steelers. The Patriots have the easiest remaining schedule of the three: at Bills, Jaguars, at Texans.

What made the Dolphins' victory impressive on Sunday was their ability to persevere.

They fumbled four times and committed three turnovers, but seemed to remain in control all the while. Chad Henne (17 consecutive completions) and Ricky Williams (108 rushing yards and a touchdown) generally kept the ball moving. The defense kept the Jaguars stalling.

Whereas the Patriots have made a habit of coming up empty in clutch situations -- failing to convert a fourth down in Indianapolis and Brady's late interception in Miami come to mind -- the Dolphins talk about a swelling belief they're going to make the play when it counts.

"If nobody expected anything out of us, then it wouldn't be worth playing," Dolphins left guard Justin Smiley said. "I'm thankful we have a resilient team, a team that fights.

"In the past we haven't done such a good job of finishing the fourth quarter. It looks like we're finally coming into our own. We need a sack at the end of the game? The defense is going to go get it.

"That's just amazing. It's just knowing your teammates and knowing the fight. It's pretty awesome to be a part of."

Greetings from Jacksonville

December, 13, 2009
12/13/09
12:03
PM ET
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The weather has broken here on the First Coast, allowing the Miami Dolphins and Jacksonville Jaguars to stretch on the field without getting soaked.

The sun has popped out of the clouds and the temperature is in the upper 70s. Scattered thunder showers are in the forecast, but they aren't expected to arrive until the game is over.

Sunday's game has serious playoff implications. The Jaguars are 7-5 and are in the final wild-card slot. But the Dolphins are one of three 6-6 teams, and a victory could propel them deep into the mix with three games to play.

The Dolphins also still have an outside shot at the division title. They're a game behind the New England Patriots, who have an easier remaining schedule but are having as much success on the field as Rob Petrie had with ottomans.

The most notable news from the inactive list is that top Jaguars receiver Mike Sims-Walker isn't on it. He was listed as doubtful with calf and knee injuries.

Get a load of the complete inactive list:

Miami Dolphins

Jacksonville Jaguars

Greetings from Land Shark Stadium

December, 6, 2009
12/06/09
12:08
PM ET
MIAMI -- After a couple days of rain and a chilly night that felt more like Delaware than South Florida, the weather is gorgeous about 90 minutes before Sunday's kickoff in Land Shark Stadium.

The field is awash in sunlight. The forecasted high temperature is 76 degrees.

Big game between the New England Patriots and Miami Dolphins. I still think the Patriots are the class of the division by a significant margin, but if the Dolphins can score an upset, then they and the New York Jets will be only one game behind the Patriots with four to play.

Buzz in the press box is about Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's finger. ESPN's Adam Schefter reports the injury, announced Friday by the Patriots, isn't bad enough to keep Brady from starting.

But there's skepticism over the injury, especially with the way Monday night's game in New Orleans unfolded. Brady threw two interceptions and was pulled from the game with 5:26 to play. His removal was Bill Belichick throwing in the white towel, but now folks are speculating Brady might've been hurt back then.

The entire inactive list for each team:

New England Patriots

Miami Dolphins

Where's Wilfork? Fins shudder to think

December, 2, 2009
12/02/09
3:32
PM ET
An interesting chess match could unfold in the trenches Sunday in Land Shark Stadium, where the New England Patriots visit the Miami Dolphins.


AP Photo/Winslow TownsonPatriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork might create match up problems for the Dolphins on Sunday.
When they played four weeks ago, Patriots nose tackle Vince Wilfork moved out to the edge to line up against Pro Bowl left tackle Jake Long. The maneuver helped the Patriots short-circuit the Wildcat, which was limited to 7 yards on 10 plays.

"Vince has really played all across the line for us," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the game. "He's a pretty versatile player. He's very flexible. He did a good job. He embraced the move all week, and I think -- we'll see how the film looked -- but it looked like he did a pretty good job on Long."

Since then, however, Miami's offensive line has gotten raggedy. Belichick's thoughts on the matchups likely will be different.

Nate Garner has taken over for Justin Smiley at left guard, and center Jake Grove has been battling an ankle injury that forced him to miss Sunday's loss to the Buffalo Bills. Joe Berger made his first NFL start in Grove's place.

Grove, who missed practice Wednesday, was considered a high-priority offseason acquisition for the Dolphins. They didn't like the way former center Samson Satele handled the AFC East's behemoth defensive tackles: Wilfork, Kris Jenkins of the New York Jets and Marcus Stroud of the Bills.

On the NFL Network's "GameDay Morning" show Sunday, former defensive tackle Warren Sapp made Wilfork his pick for toughest player in the league.

Where will the Patriots put Wilfork? They might have all sorts of options, and whoever draws the assignment won't be thrilled.

Grove, McGee out of Fins-Bills game

November, 29, 2009
11/29/09
12:01
PM ET
Here are the lineup scratches from Sunday's game between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills in Ralph Wilson Stadium:

Miami Dolphins
Buffalo Bills

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