TEAM AT CROSSROADS

The Dolphins look nothing right now like a team that could challenge for a Super Bowl spot this season. Instead, they look like a team that will be lucky just to make the playoffs. But Coach Dave Wannstedt pointed out Monday that the last three AFC champions — Baltimore, New England and Oakland — all were 5-4 after nine games. Is that reason for optimism?

Sure, it is.

But maybe that's because there's no other reason to be optimistic right now.

That's how bad the Dolphins looked against Tennessee on Sunday, particularly on offense. This was nothing, unfortunately, for an offense that can't get anywhere on the ground and can't make any big plays in the passing game.

The defense also struggled against the Titans, but at least that can be justified by the absence of both Patrick Surtain and Zach Thomas from the lineup.

Somehow, you get the feeling things wouldn't have been so easy for Tennessee and Steve McNair had those two guys been in there.

So maybe we can feel gooda about the defense's ability to keep the team in games.

But the offense is a different story.

It should be pretty obvious by now that Jay Fiedler wasn't the major problem with this group.

Clearly, it all starts up front. The scary part here is that it's too late to do anything about it this season.

Don't kid yourself, Jonathan Ogden isn't going to become available all of a sudden and Brad Bedell, whom the Dolphins claimed off waivers on Monday, isn't going to make a big difference.

The bottom line here is the offensive line has got to start playing better. Yes, that sounds easier said than done. But those guys actually played pretty well last season and they couldn't have gotten this bad this quickly.

That means they're underachieving, and that includes pretty much every single one of them. The Dolphins also need to do a better job of helping out Wade Smith, even if that means keeping a receiver in to block.

The Dolphins have two home games coming up against Baltimore and Washington, and if they win those two, they're 7-4 and in a position to make things happen down the stretch.

Go 1-1, and they're 6-5 with a tough stretch coming up and a lot of work to do.

Lose both games and the Dolphins are 5-6, and it's over for this season and for Wannstedt's stay in Miami.

On paper, those are two winnable games because the Ravens offense isn't much better than that of the Dolphins right now, and Washington simply isn't a very good team.

But the Dolphins have shown they're not good enough right now to blow anybody out, so there surely will be a lot of tense moments in the next two weeks.

But how those two games play out will shape the rest of the season.

No pressure or anything, though.


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