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Published: Saturday, 12/25/2010

Lions, Dolphins each just playing for pride

MIAMI -- Playing merely for pride is a December tradition with the Detroit Lions, and lately they've been doing it well.

Two weeks ago they beat Green Bay to end a 19-game losing streak against the NFC North, the NFL's worst slump within a division since the merger four decades ago.

Last week the Lions won in overtime at Tampa Bay, snapping their league-record streak of 26 road losses.

Now, for the first time since 2007, Detroit has won two games in a row. Going into Sunday's not-exactly-a-showdown at Miami, the Lions may be the world's proudest 4-10 team.

"We exorcised some ghosts," second-year coach Jim Schwartz said. "Obviously we're not playing for the playoffs, but we're playing for something just as important, and that's the direction of this team."

While the Lions' playoff hopes were dashed before Thanksgiving as usual, the Dolphins (7-7) were eliminated last Sunday with a dismal home loss to Buffalo.

That renders the final two games mostly meaningless for the Dolphins, which is a bit of a change, even though they've made the playoffs just once since 2001. They were eliminated on the final day of the regular season in 2009, and won the AFC East in 2008.

So where's Miami's motivation for Sunday, when the stands will likely be at least half empty?

"You got to play for pride," linebacker Karlos Dansby said. "That's all you can do. We want to finish strong. That's about it."

There's actually plenty of incentive for third-year coach Tony Sparano, whose job is in jeopardy. A second successive home loss to a last-place team would only intensify speculation the Dolphins will pursue a bigger name as a replacement -- perhaps Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden.

"With the high expectations we had, when things don't go right, you need a scapegoat," linebacker Channing Crowder said. "Guys aren't performing like they're supposed to, and people need a scapegoat, so they're talking about Tony."

Such negativity is perennial with the Lions, who are 37-121 since 2001. This will be their 11th consecutive year sitting out the playoffs, which ties Buffalo for the longest active drought.

But for a change, things seem headed in the right direction in Detroit.

Even before the back-to-back wins, the Lions looked improved. They've been outscored by only 21 points this year, compared with deficits of 232 last year and 249 in the winless 2008 season.

"If we were getting blown out every game, naturally you might have more guys giving up," receiver Nate Burleson said. "That hasn't been the case. We've walked into the locker room after every loss saying, 'We let one get away,' and that mindset helped us hang in there."

Despite persistent deficiencies at linebacker and in the secondary, Detroit's defense is much improved. The offense ranks a respectable 16th overall and 11th in passing, even with a revolving door at quarterback, where Matthew Stafford (shoulder) will miss his seventh consecutive game Sunday.

The Dolphins' defense is also improved, but a feeble offense sabotaged the season. For the first time in franchise history, the Dolphins will likely finish last in the AFC in scoring, and they've totaled 34 points in the past three games at home, where they're a league-worst 1-6.

Even if Sparano keeps his job, Chad Henne may lose his as the starting quarterback. His passer rating ranks 25th in the NFL.

"Chad is going to go through growing pains," tight end Anthony Fasano said. "We have to protect him and not let it all fall on his shoulders. A lot of us have a hand in the problem."

That's true: The ground attack's tepid too. Neither Ronnie Brown nor Ricky Williams has a 100-yard performance, and the Dolphins have gone four consecutive games without a run of more than 10 yards.

"It's tough, because the mistakes we're making, it's becoming repetitive, 15 weeks into the season," Brown said. "That's the frustrating part."

Fans are fed up. Those that bothered to attend the Bills game did lots of jeering, especially at the finish.

"The fans have a right to boo us and talk bad about us," said Brandon Marshall, who has 71 catches but only three TDs. "I think it needs to be directed at our offense, starting with myself."

The Dolphins will try to silence the jeers Sunday. Aside from pride, it's something to play for.

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