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Dolphins' hopes get squished Shutout is last nail in playoff coffin

The Miami Dolphins were somber as they stood in front of their lockers. Barely a handful of players felt like discussing their glaring mistakes. Most didn't want to talk about how the Dolphins were shut out by the Buffalo Bills, 21-0, which eliminated their already faint postseason hopes.

"This was an up-and-down season," said Miami wide receiver Chris Chambers. "We didn't give ourselves a chance to win early in the season, and it bit us in the end."

Chambers was part of a muted atmosphere, a team solemn because it failed to reach expectations.

Go back to the end of the 2005 season when the Dolphins won their last six games to finish 9-7, which elevated Miami as a chic pick to win it all. Most of the key players from '05 returned, and the addition of Daunte Culpepper seemed like a move that would push the Dolphins into the AFC elite. An undemanding schedule, which included Buffalo, Houston, the New York Jets and Green Bay all before the bye week, made the ride seem that much more effortless.

But on their way to the Super Bowl, they discovered Culpepper wasn't fully recovered from the devastating knee injury he suffered in Minnesota, and he was placed on injured reserved. Miami's decision to sign Culpepper over Drew Brees is more puzzling than ever considering Brees is putting up MVP-worthy numbers for New Orleans. Miami started the season 1-6.

"That's why you can't read into all that [preseason hype]," said Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas. "Teams are so different. Before the season, we thought Buffalo would be a pushover, and look at how they're playing. . . . We feel like we didn't start coming along until later in the season."

Coming into Sunday's game, the Dolphins had won five of their last six, including a decisive victory over Chicago (31-13) and last week's 21-0 shutout against New England.

While the Bills proved to be buzz-killers, some of the gashes from Sunday were self-inflicted. Like on their opening drive when offensive coordinator and former Bills coach Mike Mularkey called five consecutive running plays to reach the Bills' 31 on third down. In a move that surprised no one, the Dolphins tried two pass plays from Joey Harrington to Wes Welker. Both fell short.

The Dolphins ran 20 times against the Bills in their 16-6 loss during Week Two but ran 18 times in their first 22 plays Sunday. They averaged 4.2 yards a pop in the first half when they ran 22 times for 92 yards, but they ran only six more times the remainder of the game.

"As the game went on, we wanted to mix and balance [the offense]," said Miami coach Nick Saban. "We felt like we could make plays throwing the ball."

But Harrington completed just 5 of 17 for 20 yards and was picked off twice before being relieved by Cleo Lemon, who was much more efficient (9 of 16 for 98) and nearly led Miami to a touchdown at the end of the game. But that was long after the contest had been decided.

The Dolphins were full of postseason dreams, everyone licking their lips at the thought of a turnaround. Now it's another January at home.

"We got manhandled," Thomas said. "Give Buffalo credit."

e-mail: rmckissic@buffnews.com

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