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Steelers, Dolphins cling to hope

January 2, 2010
Cape Coral Daily Breeze

MIAMI (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers beat good teams and lose to bad ones, which makes the outcome of their regular-season finale tough to predict.

That's because the Miami Dolphins have been both good and bad this year.

The Steelers play at Miami Sunday with both teams clinging to playoff hopes, but needing help and lamenting games that got away.

For the Dolphins (7-8), that includes fourth-quarter collapses against New Orleans and Buffalo, a wrenching loss to Indianapolis, and games the past two weeks doomed by abysmal starts. That more than offset a win over AFC East champion New England and two victories over the wild-card contending Jets.

Pittsburgh (8-7) has been even more erratic. The Super Bowl champions defeated the Chargers, Vikings, Broncos and Ravens, who are a combined 39-21, but were beaten by the Chiefs, Browns, Raiders and Bears, who are 18-42.

As a result, at least three games must go the Steelers' way Sunday,- not just one.

"We lost a lot of games we shouldn't have lost," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "When you're put in this situation and relying on teams to go out and beat other teams, that's us putting ourselves in that situation."

The Steelers are one of five AFC teams with seven losses. To make the playoffs, they need a win at Miami and help via one of three combinations:

Losses or ties by the Texans and Jets;

Losses or ties by the Texans and Ravens;

Losses or ties by the Jets, Ravens and Broncos;

"The reality is there are some things outside our control," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "We don't need to waste one iota of time pondering those possibilities. Any playoff scenario that puts us in, the first part of that scenario is us playing winning football this week. So our focus is on preparing to play the Dolphins."

Miami faces even longer odds. To return to the playoffs, the 2008 AFC East champions need a win plus losses by the Jets, Ravens and Texans, and a loss or tie by the Jaguars.

"We'll try to get the victory, and then immediately after that everybody will start looking for scores," receiver Brian Hartline said.

At halftime the Dolphins will honor Don Shula, who turns 80 on Monday. He was the last coach to lead the franchise to a Super Bowl title - 36 years ago.

The drought will likely continue, but at least the Dolphins still have a chance, however slim. In the wake of last week's loss to Houston, they initially thought they had been eliminated.

"We could have put ourselves in a better situation," cornerback Vontae Davis said. "To still be alive - that's the crazy thing about it."

The Steelers can say the same thing. They lost to the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns in a span of 19 days during a late-season five-game losing streak.

"We didn't have to win all three, but we needed to win one," safety Ryan Clark said.

Now the Steelers could win their final three games and still miss the playoffs for only the third time since 2000.

They're flirting with a .500 finish despite having a 1,000-yard rusher, a 4,000-yard passer, three receivers with more than 70 catches and a defense ranked sixth in the NFL.

"It's frustrating," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. "We feel we have the dynamics to be an explosive offense - and we are. We're doing OK stats-wise, but stats don't always matter."

In close games, gaudy stats haven't been enough. All seven Pittsburgh losses were by seven points or less.

Miami went 6-1 in such games before losing each of the past two weeks while being outscored 44-9 in the first half. Receiver Davone Bess offered a succinct summation: "Too much bad too early late in the year."

Then there's the season-long disparity in big plays: the Dolphins don't make enough and give up too many. They rank next to last in the NFL with 25 completions of 20 yards or more, and third worst with 54 allowed.

The Dolphins are allowing an average of 5.8 yards per play, their highest figure in 41 years. Now they're without linebacker Channing Crowder, sidelined last week by a season-ending foot injury.

They're not pretending their playoff chances are good.

"If we win, hopefully the chips will fall our way and we'll have a shot at cracking the playoffs," Bess said. "Even if that doesn't happen, we've talked about cherishing the moment and having a passion."

For either team, a win probably won't be enough to keep playing. It may have been an omen that Roethlisberger talked about the Steelers' season this week in the past tense.

"It seems like when our offense was playing good, our defense wasn't, and when our defense was playing good, our offense wasn't," he said. "We just didn't put it all together."

Dolphins running back Ricky Williams is questionable for their season finale because of a shoulder injury.

Williams was limited in practice Thursday and Friday. The injury occurred in last Sunday's loss to Houston, when Williams missed much of the second half.



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