As we prepare for this weekend's AFC and NFC Championship game, the question of just how close the Dolphins are to title contention needs to be asked once again. If you believe Dan Marino, the Dolphins are pretty close. But is that reality or blind optimism?

It's interesting to note that the Dolphins played three of the four conference title game participants — New England (twice), Indianapolis and Philadelphia.

There are two ways to look at the results.

The half-full view is that the Dolphins were competitive in all four games and easily could have won all four with a big play here or there.

The half-empty approach is that the Dolphins were unable to make those plays and wound up 0-4 in those games.

But the truth of the matter, whether you choose to believe it or not, is that the Dolphins indeed are close. Very close.

Shoot, just look at those games. The Dolphins, point blank, should have won the first New England game. They easily could have won the Indy game.

Yes, the Dolphins have clear and significant needs, such as an upgrade at quarterback, fortification of the offensive line, finding a second wide receiver to complement Chris Chambers and getting a kick returner who actually can take one the distance.

But — and this is the point that cannot be overlooked — there is never a team without flaws in the NFL anymore.

Just look at this year's final four. New England has virtually no running game and keeps escaping week after week. Indy's defense is mediocre at best, particularly against the run. Carolina starting quarterback Jake Delhomme will never be confused with Peyton Manning. And the Eagles haven't been able to stop the run all year and have a receiving corps which isn't much better than the Dolphins' mediocre group.

So what does this say? It says the difference between winning and losing has never been this close in the NFL.

The Dolphins simply have never been able to find a way to consistently make the big plays when it counts most.

So however many players the Dolphins acquire in the offseason, they need to get guys who come through in the clutch.

Or maybe things will just fall right one of those years after so many attempts that fell just short.

The bottom line is that the Dolphins went 10-6 in 2003, and that's pretty good for a team that supposedly had so many flaws.

Makes you wonder just how good their record can be if they can address even just a few of their needs.

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