Consecutive December victories give the Miami Dolphins reason to hope they'll be playing for higher stakes at this time next year.
The Dolphins began preparations Monday for a mostly meaningless season finale disappointed they'll again sit out the playoffs but buoyed by recent signs of progress. Miami (7-8) beat Buffalo 24-10 Sunday, then was eliminated from the postseason race minutes later when Cincinnati claimed the final AFC playoff berth by beating Pittsburgh.
''We're building a foundation that is going to deliver excellent football teams here in the future,'' first-year coach Joe Philbin said. ''And it takes time.''
The Dolphins will be playoff spectators for the 10th time in 11 years. Other negative streaks will also continue - 39 years without a Super Bowl title, 28 years without a Super Bowl berth, and 20 years since Miami last played in the AFC championship game.
The best the Dolphins can hope for in 2012 is to avoid a fourth consecutive losing season by winning Sunday at New England.
''That's not good enough,'' defensive end Cameron Wake said. ''There are no moral victories in football. You're either first or you're last. We didn't do well enough this season to be where we want to be, and almost doing it is just not good enough.''
Even so, the outlook is much brighter than in the past couple of Decembers.
The Dolphins have won their past two games in convincing fashion. And while the opponents - Jacksonville and Buffalo - were woeful, Miami had trouble with such teams earlier this year, losing four games to opponents that will finish under .500.
Miami lost the first time it played the Jets and Bills, then beat both division rivals in the rematch, and the same could happen against the Patriots. That reflects steady improvement under Philbin.
Rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill is finishing the season strong, meaning the Dolphins will head into the offseason set at a position that has perennially been otherwise.
Over the past four games, Tannehill has thrown five touchdown passes with no interceptions.
''I think I've grown a lot,'' Tannehill said. ''I think I've learned something from every game and grown. Hopefully, I can continue that.''
The running game has thrived of late, with Miami averaging 149 yards over the past five games. Blocking was solid Sunday with the new combination of rookie Jonathan Martin at left tackle and Nate Garner at right tackle. Rookie Lamar Miller ran for a season-high 73 yards in 10 carries.
''He's going to be a great player in this league,'' teammate Reggie Bush said.
There are also encouraging signs on defense, the Dolphins' strong suit all season. They came up with four takeaways, three by emerging star Reshad Jones, to end a two-month drought. Veteran cornerback Dimitri Patterson, acquired off waivers a week ago, played well and might be part of the long-term outlook.
''Dimitri did a really nice job,'' Philbin said. ''We were happy with the contribution he made.''
But significant roster turnover is a certainty this offseason, with the Dolphins well positioned to upgrade in the draft even though they might lose several starters via free agency. They have considerable flexibility thanks to more than $40 million in cap space, along with five picks in the first three rounds of the draft.
Martin's steady play means injury-plagued tackle Jake Long, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2008, is likely to be deemed expendable and allowed to depart as a free agent. Bush, receiver Brian Hartline, tight end Anthony Fasano, defensive tackle Randy Starks, cornerback Sean Smith and safety Chris Clemons can also become free agents.
The Dolphins may try to re-sign Bush, who is their best playmaker and helped his market value in recent weeks. He scored three touchdowns Sunday and needs only 40 yards rushing to reach the 1,000 mark for the second year in a row.
''Our offense is really getting into a rhythm,'' Bush said. ''We hit a low point midway through the season where we were kind of struggling to run that ball, and I think that really hurt us. I feel like now we've kind of hit that stride where everybody is on the same page, our chemistry is good, our defense is playing well, and it feels good.''
NFL parity makes it easy to play what-if. The Dolphins lost five games by a touchdown or less, including two in overtime. Looking back, which defeat stings the most?
''All of them. All of them. All of them,'' linebacker Karlos Dansby said. ''Every last one of them.''
Such frustration will linger as the Dolphins look to a better future.
Online: http://pro32.ap.org/poll and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL