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Dolphins desperate underdogs

With the Miami Dolphins in an 0-2 hole, coach Tony Sparano said it’s time to grab a shovel and “dig ourselves out.”

It might be now or never for Miami, which plays its next three games away from home against Cleveland, San Diego and the New York Jets. The Dolphins are 2- to 2½-point underdogs to the Browns today.

There is some reason for optimism because last season “The Sparanos” was a popular show on the road, where the Dolphins went 6-2, the NFL’s second-best record away from home.

“This is it. No more excuses. The Dolphins’ backs are against the wall, and this game will make or break their season,” ParamountSports.com handicapper Lee Sterling said. “If Miami loses in Cleveland, Sparano better start packing up his office and thinking about his next career move.

“Can the Dolphins turn their season around in the Dawg Pound? Why not. Miami is clearly the better team in this matchup.”

The Dolphins were shredded by New England quarterback Tom Brady and defeated by the Houston Texans and Matt Schaub. The Browns and Colt McCoy are a step down in competition.

“Facing McCoy isn’t going to scare a defense that doesn’t have to cover anyone resembling Wes Welker or Andre Johnson,” the Miami-based Sterling said. “McCoy has a bunch of possession receivers who have never done anything special.”

Aside from running back Peyton Hillis, Cleveland has “no other weapons to hurt Miami’s defense,” Sterling said.

Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne and wide receiver Brandon Marshall will need to exploit a suspect Browns secondary.

“The Dolphins win 24-13 and allow Sparano to keep his job for at least a few more weeks,” said Sterling, who scouts the rest of today’s Week 3 schedule:

■ San Francisco at Cincinnati (-2½): The 49ers are led by quarterback Alex Smith, who might be about to be benched for the eighth time, and the Bengals follow rookie Andy Dalton. I’ll take the kid from Cincinnati who shows more promise.

■ New England (-7) at Buffalo: The Patriots have beaten the Bills 15 straight times, but the better play is over the total (54). Both quarterbacks, Brady and the Bills’ Ryan Fitzpatrick, are on fire and should stay hot against two secondaries that are average at best.

■ Houston at New Orleans (-4): These teams squared off in the preseason, and the Texans scored on their first four possessions and produced 19 first downs and 323 first-half yards. The Saints are injury riddled at receiver and vulnerable in the defensive backfield. After so many close calls, the Texans should break through and start the season 3-0.

■ New York Giants at Philadelphia (-8½): Making a selection on this game is a waste of time unless you know whether Eagles quarterback Michael Vick will be effective after sustaining a concussion last week. I’ll watch and hope to get a better feel for either team to use in the future.

■ Denver at Tennessee (-7): The Broncos have a porous offensive line and pedestrian wideouts, so scoring many points against a stout Titans defense is going to be a stretch. Tennessee has only running back Chris Johnson as an offensive weapon. The first team to 20 wins, so under 42½ is my call here.

■ Detroit (-3½) at Minnesota: The Lions have ridden Matthew Stafford-to-Calvin Johnson to a 2-0 record, but the roll they are on could come to a resounding end here. A fierce Vikings pass rush, led by Jared Allen, and running back Adrian Peterson will lead Minnesota to an easy cover. The Vikings are 4-0 straight up and 3-1 ATS at home in the past four in this NFC North series.

■ Jacksonville at Carolina (-3½): These teams are going in different directions. The Panthers have their leader in rookie quarterback Cam Newton. The Jaguars, desperate for any semblance of a passing attack, decided to start first-round draft pick Blaine Gabbert. Although the Panthers are 0-2, they piled up a 54-31 first-down edge over the Cardinals and Packers, and when you dominate games, it eventually shows up on the scoreboard.

■ Kansas City at San Diego (-14½): The offense for the Chargers has piled up 60 first downs in two games. The reason they lost to the Patriots last week was they committed three turnovers inside the red zone. The Chiefs, without running back Jamaal Charles and tight end Tony Moeaki, won’t be able to trade points with this super-charged machine.

■ New York Jets (-3) at Oakland: The Raiders like to use running back Darren McFadden to soften up a defense and then go up top with their vertical passing attack. The Jets have allowed only 64 and 112 yards rushing in two games. Without injured center Nick Mangold, the Jets will have a tough time protecting Mark Sanchez from a hard-charging Raiders defensive line. Look for this to be decided on a late score, but a low-scoring game under 41½ is the best bet.

■ Baltimore (-4½) at St. Louis: The Rams have running back and wide receiver injuries and a subpar offensive line. The Ravens seem to struggle with turnovers on the road. St. Louis is 14-6-1 under the total in its past 21 games. I’ll stick two toes in the water, hope the quarterbacks don’t find their rhythm and say this stays under 42.

■ Atlanta at Tampa Bay (-1½): Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan and the Buccaneers’ Josh Freeman each got a jolt of confidence with late-game comeback victories a week ago. Neither team has much of a defense to stop two hot passers, hence a play for a shootout and the over (45½).

■ Arizona (-3½) at Seattle: The Cardinals are a poor road team, covering just 15 of their past 44 games, while the home team is 32-11 in Seahawks games. I’ll back Seattle, which should give a better defensive effort this week, and Tarvaris Jackson might be able to hit some big pass plays on Arizona’s rookie cornerbacks.

■ Green Bay (-4) at Chicago: If I’m a Bears offensive lineman, and my quarterback, Jay Culter, was complaining about his pass protection, I’d make sure we had a little one-on-one meeting. Never throw your linemen under the bus. I think the Packers bring the heat and possibly equal the four takeaways they got in the Carolina game last week.

■ Pittsburgh (-10½) at Indianapolis: The Colts defense is built on speed and protecting a lead. The problem with that is Peyton Manning probably is sidelined for the season, and Kerry Collins is way past his prime and already has coughed up three fumbles. The Steelers might be up by so much at halftime that they could rest quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.


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