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Signs of progress, no playoffs for Dolphins

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Signs of progress, no playoffs for Dolphins

MIAMI (AP) Consecutive December victories give the Miami Dolphins reason to hope they'll be playing for higher stakes at this time next year.

The Dolphins began preparations Monday for a mostly meaningless season finale disappointed they'll again sit out the playoffs but buoyed by recent signs of progress. Miami (7-8) beat Buffalo 24-10 Sunday, then was eliminated from the postseason race minutes later when Cincinnati claimed the final AFC playoff berth by beating Pittsburgh.

``We're building a foundation that is going to deliver excellent football teams here in the future,'' first-year coach Joe Philbin said. ``And it takes time.''

The Dolphins will be playoff spectators for the 10th time in 11 years. Other negative streaks will also continue - 39 years without a Super Bowl title, 28 years without a Super Bowl berth, and 20 years since Miami last played in the AFC championship game.

The best the Dolphins can hope for in 2012 is to avoid a fourth consecutive losing season by winning Sunday at New England.

``That's not good enough,'' defensive end Cameron Wake said. ``There are no moral victories in football. You're either first or you're last. We didn't do well enough this season to be where we want to be, and almost doing it is just not good enough.''

Even so, the outlook is much brighter than in the past couple of Decembers.

The Dolphins have won their past two games in convincing fashion. And while the opponents - Jacksonville and Buffalo - were woeful, Miami had trouble with such teams earlier this year, losing four games to opponents that will finish under .500.

Miami lost the first time it played the Jets and Bills, then beat both division rivals in the rematch, and the same could happen against the Patriots. That reflects steady improvement under Philbin.

Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is finishing the season strong, meaning the Dolphins will head into the offseason set at a position that has perennially been otherwise.

Over the past four games, Tannehill has thrown five touchdown passes with no interceptions.

``I think I've grown a lot,'' Tannehill said. ``I think I've learned something from every game and grown. Hopefully, I can continue that.''

The running game has thrived of late, with Miami averaging 149 yards over the past five games. Blocking was solid Sunday with the new combination of rookie Jonathan Martin at left tackle and Nate Garner at right tackle. Rookie Lamar Miller ran for a season-high 73 yards in 10 carries.

``He's going to be a great player in this league,'' teammate Reggie Bush said.

There are also encouraging signs on defense, the Dolphins' strong suit all season. They came up with four takeaways, three by emerging star Reshad Jones, to end a two-month drought. Veteran cornerback Dimitri Patterson, acquired off waivers a week ago, played well and might be part of the long-term outlook.

``Dimitri did a really nice job,'' Philbin said. ``We were happy with the contribution he made.''

But significant roster turnover is a certainty this offseason, with the Dolphins well positioned to upgrade in the draft even though they might lose several starters via free agency. They have considerable flexibility thanks to more than $40 million in cap space, along with five picks in the first three rounds of the draft.

Martin's steady play means injury-plagued tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008, is likely to be deemed expendable and allowed to depart as a free agent. Bush, receiver Brian Hartline, tight end Anthony Fasano, defensive tackle Randy Starks, cornerback Sean Smith and safety Chris Clemons can also become free agents.

The Dolphins may try to re-sign Bush, who is their best playmaker and helped his market value in recent weeks. He scored three touchdowns Sunday and needs only 40 yards rushing to reach the 1,000 mark for the second year in a row.

``Our offense is really getting into a rhythm,'' Bush said. ``We hit a low point midway through the season where we were kind of struggling to run that ball, and I think that really hurt us. I feel like now we've kind of hit that stride where everybody is on the same page, our chemistry is good, our defense is playing well, and it feels good.''

NFL parity makes it easy to play what-if. The Dolphins lost five games by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime. Looking back, which defeat stings the most?

``All of them. All of them. All of them,'' linebacker Karlos Dansby said. ``Every last one of them.''

Such frustration will linger as the Dolphins look to a better future.

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Wolfpack overcomes 10-minute scoring drought to top Virginia

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Wolfpack overcomes 10-minute scoring drought to top Virginia

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- D.J. Funderburk scored 14 points before fouling out and North Carolina State overcame a second-half scoring drought of more than 10 minutes in a 53-51 victory against Virginia on Monday night.

C.J. Bryce added 13 points for the Wolfpack (14-5, 5-3 Atlantic Coast Conference), including a jumper with 27 seconds left after allowing the shot clock to race to near 0:00. The victory ended an eight-game losing streak against the Cavaliers.

Viginia (12-6, 4-4) used a 15-0 run during the N.C. State scoring drought that lasted 10:13 to take a 46-42 lead, bringing the crowd at John Paul Jones Arena back into the game. But Jericole Hellems hit a 3-pointer for N.C. State with 3:38 left and, after a free throw by Mamadi Diakite for Virginia, Markell Johnson hit a 3-pointer and then Hellems' putback gave the Wolfpack a 50-47 lead.

Johnson and Bryce both missed the front end of one-and-one free throw opportunities, and Kihei Clark hit a pair for Virginia. Braxton Beverly made the first and missed the second for the Wolfpack with 7.2 seconds left, and the Cavaliers Casey Morsell was short on a contested 3 at the buzzer.

Clark led Virginia with 10 points, seven rebounds and five assists.

The Wolfpack had used an 8-0 run to go ahead 42-31. Virginia helped out by going scoreless for more than 6 1/2 minutes. Francisco Caffaro, who had just been inserted into the game, ended the drought with 11:13 left.

BIG PICTURE

N.C. State: The Wolfpack seemed on their way to a solid victory until the drought, during which they were 1 for 8 from the field with five turnovers and repeatedly let the shot clock run down into single digits, forcing bad shots.

Virginia: In the Cavaliers' continuing search for scoring help, freshman Casey Morsell had as many as three field goals for the first time since a 65-56 victory against Navy on Dec. 29. He was 4 for 20 from the field in his last five games. He finished the night 4 for 9 and his buzzer-beater attempt was closely guarded.

UP NEXT

The Wolfpack remains on the road and plays at Georgia Tech on Saturday.

The Cavaliers go on the road and play at Wake Forest on Sunday.

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Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

Despite place in standings, Wizards believe playoffs aren't a pipe dream

WASHINGTON -- This may be the most realistic and self-aware Wizards team we have seen in a while. It wasn't long ago they had a penchant for talking big about what they believed they could accomplish. Nowadays, knowing where they are in the standings, their expectations are much more measured.

They know they are 12th in the Eastern Conference, even after beating the Pistons on Monday. They know their 14-28 record, which is 14 games under .500 and has them on pace to win 27 total games, isn't good.

But the Wizards are allowed to dream and they say making the playoffs is still something they would like to do.

"That's the goal, that's every day for us. [It's] in the back of my mind," shooting guard Bradley Beal said.

"I watch the games, I watch the standings and everything. We're not talking about it," head coach Scott Brooks said. "If that comes into play [we'll see]. The seventh and eighth seeds, the records aren't great."

There is certainly a case for that. The two teams currently occupying the bottom two playoff spots in the East have sub-.500 records. The seventh-ranked Magic are 20-23 and the Brooklyn Nets are in eighth with an 18-24 mark.

Last season, the Charlotte Hornets held up the Eastern Conference playoff bracket with a losing record as the eighth seed. They went 39-43, not good but still a much better pace than the Wizards are currently on. To win 39 games, they would have to go 25-16 the rest of the way.

Though they have shown some positive signs, going 4-4 in their last eight games, that would require going to a completely different level in the second half of the season. Still, there is no harm in maintaining their goals.

Beal, for one, has envisioned a way it can happen.

"Especially once All-Star hits, that second half is just flying. We have to tighten up and try to get some wins here before the break because that's usually the time when teams like to ease off the pedal a little bit. We have to take advantage of [that], that advantage of our schedule, take care of our bodies, and rally together," he said.

If the Wizards really, really wanted to go for the playoffs, they could try to add some pieces before the Feb. 6 trade deadline. But that should not be expected. In fact, this year's deadline for the Wizards likely won't be affected much at all by the playoff picture.

It's hard to envision them being buyers and they may not be able to be true sellers, either, due to injuries and other factors. Also, there is a belief in the front office that keeping a close distance in the playoff race could be a nice incentive for their young players, that having something to work for later in the season could help their development.

If the Wizards did somehow make the playoffs or even get close, that would be quite the surprise and it would say a lot about the direction of the organization. But in the long-term, it would seem to be more beneficial if they continue on their current course and end up with a top draft pick.

The Wizards right now have the fifth-worst record in the league. That would net them a lot of ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.

It seems likely that's where this season will end. But it doesn't hurt to try.

"We just want to play. We just want to finish the second half of the season playing better," Brooks said.

The Wizards are only 4 1/2 games back in the playoff race. Stranger things have happened.

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