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Decaying Dolphins faced with a real dilemma

Tony Soprano's ultimate fate was left undetermined in the controversial final scene of the iconic HBO television series his life was based on.

While we're all still wondering just what actually became of our favorite mob boss, the patriarch of the Miami Dolphins' family with the similar name seems to have a future that's far less open-ended.

There's no longer any suspense over whether or not Tony Sparano will be whacked, it's only a question of exactly when Dolphins owner Stephen Ross decides to give the order. Mounting losses combined with a dull product and rising apathy among a notoriously fickle fan base have left Miami's embattled head coach a dead man walking as one of the NFL's once-glorious franchises sinks further and further into oblivion.

The Dolphins fell to 0-4 on the young season following Sunday's 26-16 defeat in San Diego, the team's seventh consecutive setback dating back to last year. The last time Miami had a losing streak that long, it finished a dismal 1-15 in 2007.

Sparano was able to briefly rescue the Dolphins from the rock-bottom depths of that fiasco by engineering an out-of-nowhere 11-win campaign in his 2008 debut. It's been all downhill since, however, and the growing number of empty seats in Sun Life Stadium are a damning indication that he and his Bill Parcells hand- picked regime have exhausted their trust with a hard-to-please public.

Though Ross desperately wants a winner, it's that aura of indifference that may really be sticking in his craw as the Dolphins continue to flounder. What the real estate mogul seems to crave most is a team with a fixated place in the media limelight, where world-class superstar athletes and celebrity onlookers mingle in the hippest show in down.

Maybe he should have purchased the Miami Heat.

Bringing in Fergie and J-Lo may get you some attention, but wins and playoff games garner a lot more. Ross only needs to look within the Dolphins' own division, where the Patriots and Jets routinely generate weekly buzz and national television appearances primarily due to their success on the field, for proof.

Ross realizes this of course -- a guy with a net worth of upwards of $3 billion can easily figure out what average Joes like myself see as obvious -- and that's precisely why Sparano's days are numbered despite receiving a two-year contract extension in January that was merely window dressing, a face-saving PR move by Ross after his courtship of then-Stanford head coach Jim Harbaugh became public knowledge.

At this point, only a postseason appearance would likely grant Sparano a stay of execution. And that doesn't seem favorable, with the Dolphins still having five games remaining within the rugged AFC East and four against the formidable NFC East. Even with a show of improvement, anything above five wins would have to be considered a stretch.

Miami will have a bye this week before visiting the Jets under the Monday night spotlight on Oct. 17. With a home date the following Sunday, it wouldn't be surprising if Ross made a switch to stir up some interest if the Dolphins were to deliver another shameful performance.

The focus should be on the future now anyway, and Sparano and quarterback Chad Henne (a free agent at season's end) no longer appear to be part of those long- range plans. It may not make for must-see entertainment in the short term, but being in a position to draft such enticing prospects as USC's Matt Barkley and Oklahoma's Landry Jones -- or even the big prize of Stanford superstar Andrew Luck -- a few months from now may not be the worst scenario for an organization that's been clearly headed down a slippery slope.

Now there's something to be excited about.

A few other thoughts on this weekend's games:

Speaking of Harbaugh, both he and his brother sure can coach. Jim's San Francisco 49ers are the surprise of the NFC so far, winning three of their first four games following Sunday's shocking 24-23 comeback victory in Philadelphia, while John's Ravens have now defeated last year's two AFC Championship Game participants, the Steelers and Jets, by a combined score of 69-24. Baltimore is unquestionably the class of the AFC North right now, and could be the best team in the conference if quarterback Joe Flacco can gain a little more consistency.

As for the Steelers, it's now safe to say with a four-game sample that this isn't the same team that reached the Super Bowl a year ago. A once- impenetrable run defense has been gashed for 170 and 180 yards, respectively, by the two top-tier teams it's faced (and yes, the Texans do belong in that category), the ground game has been below average, and they're minus-10 in turnover ratio. And now both Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall are hurt.

Had to be some sweet redemption for San Francisco kicker David Akers in the Niners' upset of a Philadelphia team he spent the previous 12 years with before being released in the offseason, and probably for quarterback Alex Smith as well. Akers' replacement, Alex Henery, had missed field goal tries of 39 and 33 yards in the fourth quarter that contributed to the mistake-laden Eagles' demise, while the much-maligned Smith sparked the 49ers' rally with a terrific second half in which he threw for 201 yards and two touchdowns while hitting on a crisp 13-of-17 attempts.

You're only as strong as your weakest link in this league, which helps explain why three projected powerhouses (Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, New York Jets) are a combined 5-7 at the moment. All three have serious issues along the offensive line right now and rank in the bottom 10 in run defense.

Remember when the Detroit Lions couldn't buy a win? Now it seems as if the league's onetime doormats can't lose no matter what the circumstances. One week after turning around a 20-point halftime deficit for its first triumph in Minnesota in 14 years, the high-flying (and scoring) Lions rallied from 24 points down to pull out a startling 34-30 win in Dallas. Detroit did get a little help from Tony Romo along the way, though, with the unpredictable Cowboys quarterback returning to his Week 1 goat role by tossing three second- half interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns.

Looks like the surprising Tennessee Titans didn't miss Kenny Britt too much. In the team's first game without its injured standout receiver, role players such as tight end Jared Cook (93 yards, 1 TD) and Nate Washington (62 yards, 1 TD) stepped up noticeably and the Matt Hasselbeck-led offense hardly skipped a beat in an impressive 31-13 besting of Cleveland on the road. And a 100-yard day out of Chris Johnson, the All-Pro playmaker's first of the season, didn't hurt either.

Quick take on the most talked-about play of the day, which came at the end of the Giants-Cardinals thriller. As Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio pointed out in regards to officials blowing the play dead when New York receiver Victor Cruz fell to the ground untouched before losing the ball on the eventual game- winning drive, the rule book states that a play is over when the runner "declares himself down by falling to the ground and making no effort to advance." It's a rule that makes little sense, but the interpretation appeared to be correct.

Is this some kind of year for rookies or what? Cam Newton has thrown for 374 yards or more in three of his first NFL starts, wide receivers Julio Jones (11 catches, 127 yards in Atlanta's win at Seattle on Sunday) and A.J. Green (4 catches, 118 yards in Cincinnati's Week 4 win over previously-unbeaten Buffalo) are both averaging over 75 receiving yards per game, while Washington linebacker Ryan Kerrigan has made a huge early impact to one of the league's most improved defenses. The converted college end collected six sacks and induced a fumble in the Redskins' victory over sagging St. Louis on Sunday, giving him three turnovers forced in four pro outings.

Quote of the Week: "I'm just glad the third-best receiver on their team is on our team." -- Lions head coach Jim Schwartz after Sunday's stunning win against Dallas, referring to Cowboys defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's in-week remarks that his players face two superior receivers than Detroit's Calvin Johnson in practice on a daily basis. Johnson burned Ryan's unit for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to aid Detroit's comeback.

Strange Stat of the Week: Patriots 325-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork has two interceptions through four games, which equals the entire total of Philadelphia's "Dream Team" cornerback trio of Nnamdi Asomugha, Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie by himself.

Strange Decision of the Week: Minnesota head coach Leslie Frazier's stubborn insistence to keep a past-his-prime Donovan McNabb as the team's starting quarterback with the now 0-4 Vikings four games behind Detroit and Green Bay in the NFC North race and 2011 No. 1 pick Christian Ponder still waiting in the wings. McNabb, by the way, is now 5-14 over his last 19 starts dating back to his final two games with the Eagles in 2009.

Looking Ahead: A couple of high-profile games featuring 2010 Divisional Playoff rematches on next week's docket, with the slumping Jets (2-2) visiting rival New England (3-1) and the seemingly-unstoppable Green Bay Packers (4-0) heading to the Georgia Dome for a critical showdown with Atlanta (2-2). The potent Patriots have scored 30 or more points in 12 straight regular-season tests, but were held in check by Rex Ryan's group in New York's 28-21 postseason win in Foxborough last January. Coming off a six-touchdown outburst (4 passing, 2 rushing) on Sunday, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' prolific attack gets to face a Falcons' defense that allowed 319 yards and three scores to the far less credentialed Tarvaris Jackson on Sunday.