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Inconsistent Dolphins still in playoff race

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DAVIE, Fla. (AP) - The Miami Dolphins had a record of 3-3, and then 4-4, and then 5-5. Each time they lost the next game.

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Now they're 6-6, although defensive end Olivier Vernon sees it another way.

''It's like the season has started over,'' Vernon said. ''It's 0-0, and we are going to try to grind out.''

With enough grinding, maybe the Dolphins can climb above .500. They have a chance Sunday at Pittsburgh (5-7).

The Dolphins will try to build on their best performance of the year, a 23-3 road victory Sunday against the New York Jets. The win brought the Dolphins' season back from the brink, and now they're tied with Baltimore for the sixth-best record in the race for the AFC's six playoff berths.

To end a franchise-record streak of four consecutive losing seasons, Miami can't continue its recent pattern of lose-win-lose-win-lose-win.

''We've talked about how the performance level on the field has to be better in December, and part of that now is consistency,'' coach Joe Philbin said Monday. ''We're not going to reinvent ourselves from a schematic standpoint. We should have an identity by now of things we do well. We've got to be more consistent.''

With four games left, the margin for error is small - perhaps nonexistent.

''We are in the playoff hunt, and we have to win every game,'' said linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, who knows the routine because he played on Baltimore's Super Bowl championship team a year ago. ''But it's very important to not look too far down the road.''

Players probably shouldn't, but fans can. Three of the Dolphins' final four opponents are under .500, and the toughest remaining game - against AFC East leader New England - is in Miami.

Despite an early-season four-game losing streak, followed by a bullying scandal that threatened to sabotage the season, the Dolphins still have a shot at their first playoff berth since 2008.

''We are fighters,'' Vernon said. ''We love having everyone against us.''

A loss to New York likely would have doomed the Dolphins' postseason chances, but instead they dominated, outgaining the Jets 453-177. Both totals were the best of the season for the Miami.

The offense showed uncharacteristic balance to control the ball for nearly 39 minutes, Miami's highest total in three years.

''It starts with the run game - the offensive line doing a great job, the backs hitting the holes when they're there, getting the tough yardage,'' quarterback Ryan Tannehill said.

A season-high 36 rushing plays kept the Jets' No. 1-ranked run defense off balance. Tannehill also threw for 331 yards, the second-highest total in his 28 career starts, and he was sacked only once - a season low - even though Miami again played with a patchwork offensive line.

Tannehill is finally starting to mesh with Mike Wallace, who in the past two games has 12 catches for 209 yards and two scores, tripling his touchdown total for the season. Third-year tight end Charles Clay had a career-high seven catches for 80 yards against New York, and Brian Hartline added a season-high 127 yards receiving on nine catches.

The defense also hit several high-water marks, led by second-year pro Vernon with a career-best 2 1/2 sacks. He has 5 1/2 in the past three games.

The victory was the most lopsided this year for Miami, which has had eight games decided by four points or less. Philbin even allowed himself a smile as the final minutes ticked off.

''A unique situation,'' he said. ''It was a different feeling.''

The question now for the up-and-down Dolphins is how long they can make that feeling last.

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AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

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Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve-Wine

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The Associated Press
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