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Improved Miami trying to catch improved Bills

The Miami Dolphins have already doubled last year's win total, which means they're better than abysmal. With a victory Sunday, they could even stake a claim as the most improved team in the AFC East.

Miami plays the surprising Buffalo Bills, who lead the division at 5-1. The Dolphins are last at 2-4 and eager to accelerate their progress.

This game's important for a lot of reasons,'' Miami coach Tony Sparano says.We need to win in our division. We don't want to fall behind these people. We're not conceding anything here.''

The Dolphins have been chasing the Bills for a while. Buffalo has won the past four games in the series and seven of the past eight.

And now the Bills could be bound for their first playoff berth since 1999.

We're off to a good start and we're beating some pretty good teams,'' offensive lineman Duke Preston says.But this thing is far from over and far from set in stone in terms of where we're going. We need to keep the foot on the pedal.''

The Bills have benefited from a soft schedule, with none of the teams they've beaten above .500. Still, the only time they started a season faster was in 1964, and the latest win may have been their most impressive yet: a 23-14 victory over San Diego.

Over the last couple of years, they've just been getting better and better,'' Miami quarterback Chad Pennington says.They've turned some close losses over the past few years into close wins this year.''

Buffalo has come from behind in the fourth quarter to win three times. But coach Dick Jauron sees little significance in his team's one-game lead over second-place New England in the division.

We're actually not at the top of it,'' Jauron says.We haven't played a division game.''

A scheduling fluke has the Bills playing all six division games in the final 10 weeks.

The rebuilding Dolphins are 1-1 in the division, and they've played to the level of their opposition, which bodes well for Sunday. They upset last year's AFC finalists, New England and San Diego, while only one of their losses came against a team that has a winning record: Arizona.

``We've played well against really good teams,'' guard Justin Smiley says.

``They're a lot better team than they were last year,'' Bills safety Donte Whitner says.

Miami has lost two in a row, however, stalling momentum under the new Bill Parcells regime.

Parcells likes physical, run-oriented teams, and the ground game was expected to be the Dolphins' strength this season. But they've been more productive with the pass, and much of their success on the ground has come in the Wildcat formation, with direct snaps to leading rusher Ronnie Brown.

I'm not happy with where we are right now running the football,'' Sparano says.We're getting better. It's just got to happen faster.''

In their victories, the Dolphins have averaged 192 yards rushing per game and 5.1 per carry. In their defeats, the averages are 72 and 3.3.

Obviously we need to be more effective in the running game and get things going,'' Brown says.We've shown glimpses of what we're capable of doing, but we still have a ways to go.''

In last week's loss to Baltimore, the Wildcat was shut out for the first time, netting 4 yards in five plays. The Dolphins blamed their execution rather than the Ravens' scheme, and they say the package includes some wrinkles they have yet to try.

I don't think we need to fear it, but we definitely need to be ready for it,'' Bills linebacker Paul Posluszny says.It's very unique in the league, and they have had a lot of success with it. As long as we are real disciplined in our keys and everyone lines up where we are supposed to be, we should be all right.''

Miami may need some Wildcat fireworks to keep up with the Bills' improved attack.

The Buffalo offense has totaled 14 touchdowns - seven rushing and seven passing - after scoring only 20 all of last season, a franchise record low for a 16-game season.

Trent Edwards' growth at quarterback reached a new level last week, when he set a team record by completing 83 percent of his passes (25 of 30) to help beat the Chargers.

Honestly, he looks to me like a different player,'' Sparano says.When I watch him, I'm looking at this guy that's really a veteran type of a quarterback.''

Edwards is better. The Bills are better. The Dolphins are better. Sunday will determine who's best - for one day.

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