MIAMI – The Miami Dolphins have improved so much they hardly need the ball to win.
Miami had possession for less than 22 minutes Sunday, but held the opposition without a touchdown for the third game in a row and helped its playoff chances by beating San Francisco 14-9.
The 49ers ran 79 plays to 42 for the Dolphins, but Miami tight ends scored the only touchdowns on first-half passes from Chad Pennington. He threw a 61-yarder to David Martin and a 19-yarder to rookie Joey Haynos, making the first reception of his career.
San Francisco reached the Miami 21 before its final threat ended when Shaun Hill was sacked on fourth-and-10 by Joey Porter with 1:02 left.
The surprising Dolphins (9-5), who began the day tied with the Patriots and Jets for the AFC East lead, won for the seventh time in eight games. They can earn their first playoff berth since 2001 by sweeping their final two games, which would be a remarkable achievement for a team that went 1-15 last year.
The 49ers (5-9), trying to play spoilers, fell short in their bid to beat an AFC East team for the third week in a row.
Miami had the ball for less than 10 minutes in the first half, but led 14-3 at halftime, and needed only three plays on offense to take the lead for good. Pennington threw deep to Martin, who outmaneuvered Mark Roman to make the catch and sprinted for the end zone. It was the longest reception of Martin's career.
A 27-yard punt return by Davone Bess set up the Dolphins' second score on the Pennington-to-Haynos completion.
From there the Dolphins nursed their lead. Miami's Dan Carpenter hit the crossbar on a 49-yard attempt with 2:36 left, giving the 49ers the ball at their 39. They reached Miami's 21 before Hill spiked the ball to stop the clock, and he threw two more incompletions before Porter sacked him.
Porter increased his season sacks total to 17 1/2, and Nate Jones had two sacks for Miami's bend-but-don't-break defense. The Dolphins made only 11 first downs and converted just one third-down situation, but they had no turnovers and remain on pace to set an NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season.
Poor field position plagued the 49ers, who started their possessions at their 20, 20, 11, 4, 11, 13, 21, 34 and 39. Mistakes hurt them, too. They muffed a kickoff, made a fair catch of a punt inside the 5, dropped a potential interception and committed two false-start penalties on one play.
Miami went 4-0 at home this season against West Coast teams. Teams from the Pacific time zone are 1-16 this season playing in the East, with the only win by the 49ers at Buffalo last month.
The game was the Dolphins' regular-season home finale — they'll finish at the Chiefs and Jets. But odds are improving Miami will have a home game in January.