Tip Sheet: Miami in familiar predicament

A year ago at this same juncture of the season, the Miami Dolphins, fresh off a 27-13 loss to the Baltimore Ravens, occupied last place in the AFC East and trailed the division-leading Buffalo Bills by three games.

Sound familiar?

Losers to the surging New Orleans Saints in Week 7, a 46-34 loss at Landshark Stadium that nose tackle Jason Ferguson termed "demoralizing," the Dolphins are 2-4 for a second consecutive season. They are again in last place in the division and are 2½ games behind the AFC East-leading New England Patriots.

So, déjà vu all over again, huh?

Dolphins players, recalling their sudden '08 turnaround, certainly hope that's the case.

"You can't make a living like this, putting yourself in a hole in a tough division, and then having to dig your way out of it," said safety Yeremiah Bell, a quiet standout on a Dolphins 2008 club that won nine of its last 10 outings and claimed its first division crown since 2000 with an 11-5 mark. "But if there's anything positive about this, it's that we did it last year, and we have the reinforcement of knowing it can be accomplished.

"It doesn't happen often … but it happens."

Fact is, a team rebounding from a nonwinning record at the seven-week mark of a season, and then reversing its fortunes enough to qualify for the playoffs, occurs a lot more frequently than one might think.

Since the NFL implemented an eight-division format in 2002, there have been 21 teams, at least one each in the seven previous seasons, that made the playoffs despite posting nonwinning records in their first seven games. Of that group, 13 captured division championships and eight more won wild-card berths. Last year, and also in 2002, half of the league's dozen playoff franchises won postseason spots despite owning nonwinning records after seven weeks of play.

The 2008 Dolphins and the New York Jets and Tennessee Titans of 2002 staged the biggest comebacks. All three teams won division titles after 2-4 starts. Indianapolis (in 2008) and Philadelphia (2003) each won 12 games after registering nonwinning records in the first seven weekends. The San Diego Chargers won the AFC West crown in each of the past two seasons despite seven-week starts of 3-3 in 2007 and 3-4 in 2008.

"It's not the way you'd pick to do it, if you had a choice,"
allowed Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers. "But it's not impossible if you get hot."

Getting hot, and quickly, is the key ingredient to the comeback formula, of course. Only three of the 21 clubs that made the playoffs after having nonwinning records through seven weeks did so without the advantage of a minimum three-game winning streak. The comeback teams rang up 15 winning streaks of four games or more in their respective rallies. Philadelphia won eight straight games in 2003, and Indianapolis nine in '08.

Not surprisingly, the Dolphins surged in 2008 behind separate winning streaks of four and five games.

Can coach Tony Sparano's team repeat the turnaround this season? It will be difficult without steadying quarterback Chad Pennington, lost for the season to a right shoulder injury, and with inexperienced second-year pro Chad Henne as the starter. Miami, which is 2-0 in the division, faces road games against AFC East rivals -- at the New York Jets on Sunday and at New England on Nov. 8 -- in its next two outings.

How the Dolphins perform in those games could determine the club's ability to rebound in 2009.

"There's not a lot of margin for error, [so] if you're going to do it, you have to do it quickly, like right now," said Dolphins linebacker Channing Crowder. "You can't afford to waste any time."

Entering this weekend, there are 17 franchises with nonwinning records, including four clubs from the 2008 playoffs. If recent history is any kind of indicator, at least one of those 17 franchises will rally to earn a playoff spot in 2009.

Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.