Miami Dolphins take on the New England Patriots on Monday night

Defense gives Dolphins a chance

It could happen.

A lot needs to go right, of course.

OK, almost everything needs to go their way — including some things going wrong elsewhere in the AFC East, especially in New England and New York.

But the Miami Dolphins, who open the new season at home Monday night against the Patriots, could make a run at the playoffs in 2011.

They have a chance.

A realistic chance.

And that chance depends mightily on their defense, a take-no-prisoners bunch that too often gets overlooked because the Dolphins, as a team, have been mired in mediocrity the past two seasons.

Big and tough up front, quick on the outside and nasty in the middle, the Dolphins go into the season with a physically gifted, Mike Nolan-designed defense that should keep them in games, even against better teams.

Lost in a second consecutive 7-9 showing, the Dolphins ranked sixth in the NFL in overall defense last season. And the addition of Kevin Burnett, a free agent from San Diego, only strengthens a linebacker corps that includes Cameron Wake, Karlos Dansby and Koa Misi.

That front seven, along with proven performers Vontae Davis and Sean Smith on the corners, gives the Dolphins a defense that should be formidable, and must be dominant to for the team to stay in the championship chase.

If you haven't seen it: There are at least eight playoff contenders on the Dolphins' 2011 schedule, which includes games against the Houston Texans, San Diego Chargers, New York Giants, Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, as well as home-and-away division dates with the Patriots and New York Jets.

And if the Dolphins defense rises to the task, plays up to expectations, keeps the games close?

It could happen.

The Dolphins could play their way to the playoffs.

The offense, though, must play better than it did last season, when quarterback Chad Henne's erratic play cost the team victories — he passed for 3,301 yards and 15 touchdowns but was intercepted 19 times — and frustrated coaches and fans.

Only the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers scored fewer points than the Dolphins, who mustered 15 points or less nine times in 2010, and Henne was as much to blame as anyone.

But if Henne plays better? If he eliminates the mistakes that lose games? If the coaching staff, as it says it will, removes the shackles and allows him to take more shots down the field?

If he has a break-out season?

Though Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown are gone from the backfield, the Dolphins have upgraded Henne's supporting cast, bolstering a Jake Long-led offensive line with first-round pick Mike Pouncey of Florida, filling the running-back void by drafting Kansas State's Daniel Thomas in the second round, and adding the speed and versatility of former Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl winner Reggie Bush, who is expected to take on a greater workload in Miami than he had in New Orleans.

They'll complement a potentially dangerous group of receivers led by Brandon Marshall (86 catches, 1,014 yards, 3 touchdowns) and Davone Bess (79 catches, 5 touchdowns), and veteran dependable tight end Anthony Fasano (39 catches, 4 touchdowns).

But it is Bush who could — and, perhaps, needs to — become Henne's favorite target.

A dual threat who can line up in the backfield or out wide, his quickness and agility allows him to burst through holes as a runner, and his speed as a receiver often creates mismatches against opposing linebackers.

So Henne, the key to the Dolphins' offensive success this season, should have plenty of help.

Even Tony Sparano, the Dolphins' embattled coach who needs to win big to save his job, says he will be less conservative with his game plans, won't rely nearly as much on the run and will let his quarterback challenge defenses more this season.

And if Henne is up to the challenge?

If Bush provides the big-play production this team has so sorely lacked? If Marshall puts together another Pro Bowl-caliber season? If the offensive line meshes and Thomas can get the hard-nosed, between-the-tackles yards needed to keep drives alive?

If the defense dominates?

Yes, a lot needs to go right.

But it could happen.

The Dolphins have a chance to get back to the playoffs ... as long as they don't blow it on special teams.

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