Sunday Spotlight: Miami's late-season end run

A month ago, the Miami Dolphins were 3-5 after a Week 9 loss to the New England Patriots. One week later in a close win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they lost starting running back and Wildcat epicenter Ronnie Brown(notes) for the season to a foot injury. Things looked bleak, but the Dolphins' coaching staff did exactly what they did in 2008 -- adopt, adapt, and improve. When the '08 'Fins started 0-2 and their stagnant offense needed a switch, head coach Tony Sparano and quarterbacks coach David Lee first implemented the option formations that have taken the NFL by storm. Their current adjustment to circumstances beyond their control is just as impressive.

When Brown got hurt, Sparano and his staff resisted the temptation common to bad teams -- they didn't retrofit that offense onto players who couldn't execute it.They learned all they needed to know about Ricky Williams'(notes) ability to replace Brown in shotgun sets when Ricky threw an ill-advised end zone interception in a 31-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills two weeks ago. Blessed with one of the best blocking backs in the league in fullback Lousaka Polite(notes), Miami dumped the gimmicks and went back to basics -- power football out of the I-formation, with Polite opening holes for Williams. At the same time, second-year quarterback Chad Henne(notes) has been developing under the radar, and he showed his skills in last week's winning rematch with the Pats. The Dolphins once again adjusted their game plan to suit their opponent, putting the game in Henne's hands as he attempted 52 passes. Henne made a number of impressive stick throws downfield, and connected for touchdowns to Davone Bess(notes) (one of the best third-down receivers in the league) and Brian Hartline(notes).

At 6-6, the Dolphins might just be in the AFC East's catbird seat. The Patriots are falling apart, the Jets are trying to figure out whether they'll have Mark Sanchez(notes) at all through the rest of the season, and the Bills are in full rebuilding mode. At 4-2, Miami has the East's best division record. They begin their last-month end run at Jacksonville today -- the Jags are game, but several injuries may handicap them in the short term (early reports have Mike Sims-Walker(notes), John Henderson(notes), and Rashean Mathis(notes) as limited or inactive). Then, it's at Tennessee, home against Houston, and home against the Steelers. Tough but winnable, which is the way this team likes it. Everybody automatically assumed that the Dolphins were just holding the AFC East championship for the Pats until Tom Brady(notes) got healthy, but we might be in for a repeat performance if the Fins continue to keep their schemes one step ahead of late-season fate.

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