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Latest win helps Dolphins' playoff chances

Monday - 12/9/2013, 6:38pm  ET

Miami Dolphins tight end Charles Clay (42) celebrates with Mike Pouncey (51) and Daniel Thomas (33) after scoring a touchdown during the second half of an NFL football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Don Wright)

STEVEN WINE
AP Sports Writer

DAVIE, Fla. (AP) -- Looking for their first playoff berth since 2008, the Miami Dolphins are getting warmer.

A win in the snow at Pittsburgh helped their chances, and now the Dolphins are back in balmy South Florida preparing to play at home Sunday against AFC East leader New England.

A defeat wouldn't doom the Dolphins (7-6). But they're tied with Baltimore in the race for the AFC's sixth and final wild-card berth, and even a sweep of the final three games might not be enough to make the postseason.

After facing the Patriots, Miami will return north to play Buffalo on Dec. 22, then conclude the regular season at home against the New York Jets on Dec. 29.

"All the games are going to be tough," said cornerback Brent Grimes, who's not worrying about potential scenarios. "We just need to win. I don't know how you're looking at it, but we need to win. We need to take care of our business."

The Dolphins have done so lately, winning back-to-back games for the first since September. They're 3-1 since a dismal defeat against previously winless Tampa Bay. They're 4-2 since tackle Jonathan Martin left the team and a bullying scandal threatened to send the season into a tailspin.

Much work remains if the Dolphins are to end a streak of four consecutive losing seasons. First they'll need a breakthrough against the Patriots (10-3), a challenge daunting enough to supersede playoff talk.

"All that matters is that with an excellent team coming to town, that's a full plate," coach Joe Philbin said Monday. "We're going to have to play extremely well. That's what we have to keep focused on."

New England has won seven consecutive games in the series, including a 27-17 victory in Week 8 after Miami led 17-3 at halftime. Given the lopsided recent history between teams, it's no surprise Miami is an underdog at home.

While Miami's final two opponents have losing records, the Dolphins have won at Buffalo only twice since 2004, and they've swept a season series against the Jets only once since 2004.

The Ravens have a tougher closing schedule than Miami, with three games against division leaders, beginning next Monday at Detroit. But if Miami and Baltimore finish in a two-way tie for the conference's sixth-best record, the Ravens hold the tiebreaker because they won when the teams met in Week 5.

Despite the Dolphins' winning record, they've been outgained this season by 310 yards and rank in the lower half of the NFL in total offense, total defense, rushing and passing yardage, and run defense. They would have lost Sunday, but the Steelers' Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds by inches before reaching the end zone on the game's crazy final play.

"I might have been saying a couple of Hail Marys," Philbin said. "I know my mother was, wherever she was."

"The football gods were watching over us," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle added.

Despite the narrow margin, the Dolphins are buoyed by a sense they're heading in the right direction on offense after sputtering much of the season.

With the 34-28 victory, they exceeded 27 points for the first time all year, becoming the last NFL team to do so. They scored a fourth-quarter touchdown for the first time in eight games.

"Our guys are making plays," Philbin said. "We made a point of emphasis when we got to December. We said, 'We're not going to reinvent the wheel. We've got to get better at our stuff. We've got to step up and make plays.' And our guys have done that."

Ryan Tannehill tied a career high with three touchdown passes while playing in snow for the first time. He improved his passer rating over the past six games to 89.3, with nine touchdown passes and a completion percentage of 65.

Tight end Charles Clay had a career-high two scores Sunday, accelerating his emergence as a consistent threat. He has 24 receptions for 294 yards and three scores over the past four games.

The Dolphins also ran for 181 yards, their highest total in more than a year. Daniel Thomas rushed for 105 yards, reaching the 100 mark for only the second time in his three-year career after missing the previous game with a sprained ankle.

"I'm sure he wasn't 100 percent," offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said, "but he played as if he was."

A concussion sidelined running back Lamar Miller, but he was optimistic he'll be able to play against the Patriots.

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