Thanks to a win last week and a loss by the AFC East leaders, the Miami Dolphins control their own destiny as they try to complete a turnaround from one of the worst teams in NFL history to division champions.
Now the team that helped put them in this position is standing in their way.
The Dolphins look to move one step closer to an improbable playoff spot Sunday against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, who are coming off back-to-back wins over Miami’s division rivals.
There was only room for improvement for the Dolphins (8-5) heading into 2008 after becoming the eighth team in league history to finish a season 1-15. Yet no one could have expected what has taken place in south Florida under rookie coach Tony Sparano.
Miami opened 2-4, but is 6-1 over the last seven weeks. The most recent victories have come away from home, first a 16-12 win over St. Louis on Nov. 30, then a 16-3 victory over Buffalo in Toronto last Sunday that was marked by a dominant defensive performance.
“The story does keep getting better,” said safety Yeremiah Bell, who tied for the team lead with five solo tackles last week. “This is something that’s definitely sweet, going from one win to being in every game this year and having a legitimate chance to win. It’s a great feeling.”
As the Dolphins were beating the Bills in Canada, the 49ers (5-8) were providing Miami with a big break from across the continent. San Francisco put on a defensive show of its own, holding the first-place New York Jets to a season-low 182 yards of offense in a 24-14 victory.
That result created a three-way tie among New England, Miami and the Jets atop the AFC East. Despite a road game against the Jets looming in Week 17, the Dolphins know that if they win out, they’ll earn their first division title since 2000.
“I’m curious,” Sparano 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.”
Miami hasn’t allowed a touchdown in the past two weeks, and while the team’s statistics aren’t overwhelming - the Dolphins are 13th in total defense at 317.2 yards per game and 10th in total offense at 350.7 - one particular number illustrates why they’ve been successful. Miami’s plus-12 turnover margin is the best in the NFL.
Chad Pennington, cut by the Jets after New York landed Brett Favre in the offseason, has keyed the Dolphins offensively. The nine-year veteran has undergone a career revival in Miami, completing 66.4 percent of his passes and throwing only six interceptions - none in the last two wins - while compiling a 93.7 quarterback rating that’s second in the AFC.
“Here’s a guy who understands what efficiency means, he understands how efficiency wins in our league and he knows as the game is going on that all of a sudden there’s 37 minutes time of possession,” Sparano said. “He is just so in tune during the course of the game and how you manage the game … he means an awful lot to what we’re doing right now.”
As efficient as Pennington as been, Shaun Hill has been just as good for the 49ers. When coach Mike Singletary took over for the fired Mike Nolan on Oct. 20, he named Hill the starter, replacing the inconsistent J.T. O’Sullivan.
Hill played well in two starts last season, and after struggling in his first start of 2008, has been outstanding since. He’s completed 67.8 percent of his passes with seven touchdowns and two interceptions in his last four starts, and his 106.5 rating since Nov. 16 is tops in the league.
Hill was 28-of-39 for 285 yards and two TDs in the win over the Jets.
“I think it was a big step for myself and this team,” Hill told the 49ers’ official Web site. “For this team, this win is huge, to beat an opponent like this and to go back-to-back and get victories against two good opponents.”
Sunday’s victory followed a 10-3 win in Buffalo a week earlier, the first by a West Coast-based team in the Eastern time zone this season.
Repeating that feat this week will be considerably more difficult if Frank Gore can’t play. The 49ers’ leading rusher sprained his left ankle against New York and is questionable for Sunday.
If Gore can’t go, fumble-prone DeShaun Foster will get the start. Foster, who’s averaging 2.1 yards this season, led all NFL running backs with five lost fumbles in 2007.
The 49ers haven’t played in Miami since 1995, and haven’t beaten the Dolphins there since 1980.