MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Emerging from the Miami Dolphins' complex through a back door, Ryan Tannehill wrinkled his nose as he walked past a stack of fertilizer for the practice fields.
"Ugh, it smells like sulfur," Tannehill said.
The Dolphins' aroma is becoming tough to ignore. After a 3-0 start, Miami (3-4) has lost four consecutive games, with each defeat more pungent than the last.
Especially odoriferous was the latest loss, when the Dolphins blew a two-touchdown lead in the second half at New England. With little time to regroup, they'll try to revive fading playoff hopes Thursday against AFC North leader Cincinnati (6-2).
"We are in a tough spot, obviously, coming off four losses," Tannehill said. "At home, short week, a very good opponent — it's a big game for us."
The Bengals are happily heading in the opposite direction with four consecutive wins. Another victory would give them a three-game lead, which would be the biggest in any division.
"It's a lot of fun to come out and play the way we've been doing," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "It has been a lot of fun for the fans and everybody that's in Cincinnati that is rooting for us. There's a lot of pride about our team, and there's a lot of pride in this city. If we can keep delivering and we can keep playing like we have been, I think there will be a lot of happy people."
Here are five keys to watch as the Bengals try to continue their streak, and the Dolphins try to end theirs:
WHO CAN GET OPEN?: Speedy Marvin Jones set a Bengals record against the Jets last week with four touchdown catches, which is four times the number he totaled as a rookie last year.
It was a breakout performance by the former fifth-round draft pick.
"I love playing this game for that reason — on any given Sunday, anything can happen," Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake said. "You have guys who step up and make plays who you may not have heard about. Obviously he's got the hot hand right now."
Jones' emergence ensures additional headaches for a defense that must also contend with Bengals All-Pro receiver A.J. Green.
Tannehill, meanwhile, has had trouble finding an open target, which helps explain his NFL-high 32 sacks. Mike Wallace, the Dolphins' $60 million newcomer, is on pace for career lows in yards receiving and touchdowns, with only one score this year.
"I've never been in this situation," Wallace said. "You just have to keep working. You can't get down. You can't go in the tank. You've got to stay positive. If you start being negative — 'I only have one touchdown' — that is going to rub off, and it's going to keep going bad."
THE DALTON-TANNEHILL MATCHUP: It's no coincidence the best stretch of Dalton's career has come during the Bengals' winning streak.
The third-year pro has started to play like a franchise quarterback, setting a franchise record for a three-game span with 11 touchdown passes, including a career-high five last week. His three consecutive 300-yard games tie the team record set by Ken Anderson, whose No. 14 is worn by Dalton.
Likewise, Tannehill's fortunes lately parallel those of the Dolphins. In the past four games he has seven interceptions, 18 sacks and a passer rating of 69.2.
CINCY'S MO: The Bengals are eager to pad their division lead after settling for wild-card berths the past two seasons and losing at Houston in the opening round both times.
"What the real key is: staying on a roll and staying hot," left tackle Andrew Whitworth said. "You really are going to have points in the season where, whether for injuries or one thing or another, you are going to have a tough game. That's really when it's key to stay hot as long as you can and try to rack those wins up."
Miami needs a win to avoid falling into a tie for last place in the AFC East. After three weeks, the Dolphins were off to their best start since 2002, but now they could be headed for a fifth consecutive losing season.
REACHING THE FINISH: The Dolphins had a shot at winning in the fourth quarter in each of the past three games, then played poorly down the stretch.
They were tied with two minutes left against Baltimore. They led before giving up two scores in the final period against Buffalo. They were outscored 24-0 in the final 24 minutes at New England.
"We just have to finish," cornerback Dimitri Patterson said. "In crunch time and critical situations, we have to come up with the big play. We haven't been able to do that."
BEAT-UP BENGALS: Cincinnati has more significant injuries this week than for any other game this season. Middle linebacker Rey Maualuga hurt his left knee and suffered a concussion against the Jets and is on crutches. Safety Taylor Mays suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and others — including Whitworth — may be sidelined or limited Thursday.
The Dolphins lost slot receiver Brandon Gibson to a season-ending knee injury last week. He caught three touchdown passes in the past two games.
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