DAVIE (AP) – Even on the verge of an improbable playoff berth, the Miami Dolphins believe the stench of their one-win season lingers.
Not that they have a problem with that. Underestimating the Dolphins made their remarkable resurgence easier.
“You look at our roster, and nobody scares you,” cornerback Andre Goodman said Monday. “I think everybody thought of us as a 1-15 team, and there was no point in the season where anybody took us seriously.”
Goodman said that's still the case, even with Miami tied for the AFC East lead at 10-5 with New England.
Because the Dolphins hold the tiebreaker advantage, they can clinch the division title and their first playoff berth since 2001 by winning Sunday at the New York Jets.
It's a big change from a year ago this week, when Bill Parcells was hired as executive vice president of football operations to revive the franchise. Shortly after the season, he began cleaning house and fired coach Cam Cameron.
Now the Dolphins rank among the NFL's hottest teams, winning four games in a row and eight of their past nine. They're physical and keep mistakes to a minimum, which fits the Parcells blueprint.
How could such a team still be taken lightly?
"I think teams said, `They're winning some close games, but they're the same Dolphins. … It's just a fluke,'" Goodman said. "We did go 1-15. You don't come back from 1-15 and gain respect just because you have a new coaching staff and Bill Parcells is in the front office. And it's OK that teams view us this way."
It is tempting to sell short the Dolphins, who have mastered the art of winning close games against bad teams. Including Sunday's 38-31 victory at Kansas City, they've won six times by a touchdown or less, and they've beaten only two teams with a winning record: New England and Denver.
They've outscored the opposition by a grand total of 21 points this season, an underwhelming margin that may help explain why only one Miami player – linebacker Joey Porter – was chosen to start in the Pro Bowl.
Coach Tony Sparano suppressed a smile when asked about any lack of respect.
"Maybe there was some of that, where people still look at you as a 1-15 team, and maybe we're screwing some things up for them," he said. "Right now, more and more people have to respect our effort. This team of no stars just goes out in workmanlike fashion and prepares very well."
The Dolphins are the first team to win 10 games one year after going 1-15, and they've done it by saving their best for the fourth quarter. Sunday was the latest example.
With the score tied at 31, Miami mounted an 8 1/2-minute drive that covered 85 yards for the winning touchdown on a pass from Chad Pennington to Anthony Fasano.
Lack of respect is difficult to document, and opponents have widely praised the Dolphins for their turnaround. The most inflammatory comment was pretty mild – Miami players took umbrage when
Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said Cameron did a great job last year "with what he had to work with."
Are teams skeptical that Sparano has much to work with? Fasano said yes.
"I think that comes from the way we won some of the games this year, thinking maybe it was a fluke," Fasano said. "But when you win games in the fourth quarter and you are able to close teams out consistently, that shows signs of a good team."
Even if their success is a fluke, the Dolphins will play a meaningful regular-season finale Sunday for the first time in six years. One compelling subplot will be Pennington's return to New York, where he twice helped the Jets reach the playoffs before they discarded him in August in favor of Brett Favre.
It's a showdown Pennington claims to have anticipated.
"At the beginning of the year, we believed that we could be at this point," Pennington said. "We didn't know exactly how we would get there, or what exactly would happen, but we did believe if we kept working hard we would get to this point. And here we are."
Pennington is a newcomer; players who endured 1-15 were less optimistic about 2008. Goodman, for example, didn't anticipate playing for a postseason berth in the final game.
"Not at all," he said. "We tried to set realistic goals."
It's difficult to blame opponents if they have a hard time believing how quickly Miami has gone from worst to first when the Dolphins do, too.
"I don't think it has really hit me," defensive end Vonnie Holliday said. "If you wrote this out at the beginning of the season, I don't think you could write a better story."
AP Photo/Charlie Riedel. Miami Dolphins safety Renaldo Hill, right, celebrates with teammates Vonnie Holliday (91) and Courtney Bryan (47) after Hill intercepted a pass late in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008 in Kansas City, Mo. Miami won the game 38-31.