As the hangover from the Miami Dolphins’ 38-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens subsides, clarity takes better hold of the senses and, with it, perspective.
There is no escaping the fact that the Dolphins just failed a major test, a test to see if they measured up among the best in the American Football Conference. Yet it would be wrong of us to consider this a setback on the season. Rather, it simply confirms the true nature of these Dolphins at the given point in time.
The Dolphins are a good team, borderline playoff worthy, but with a ways to go before they can be considered a serious contender. This is a big improvement over the train wreck campaigns of the past decade, though unsatisfying to those of us who know what a championship winner looks like.
Look, the Ravens are a quality team, were playing at home, with the postseason at stake, a Super Bowl MVP at quarterback and one of the best defenses in the NFL. They have deep experience in playing proper December football. It was a tall task for the good guys to go in there, earn a win, and accomplish something no other Dolphin team had done in 31 years…win seven-in-a-row.
So don’t be too dismayed that the friendlies came up short. Yes, a win would have dramatically changed the narrative on this season, but a loss doesn’t mean their playoff hopes are shot. Far from it.
However, it does mean the Dolphins’ margin for error has narrowed. Anything worse than 10-6 probably won’t punch a ticket to the postseason, with 10-3 Oakland and 8-4 Denver holding the inside track for the two wild card slots.
So what has to happen?
First, the Dolphins need to keep winning. Anything less than a 3-1 finish won’t be good enough. This final run begins by taking care of business this Sunday at home versus the 5-6-1 Arizona Cardinals, who present some unfavorable match-up challenges as well as a deceptive record. If the Dolphins win as I expect them to, the following two weeks on the road for cold weather divisional games (at Jets, at Bills) will validate the worthiness of this bunch to advance to the postseason. The outcome of these two games could determine whether or not the regular season finale at home versus the Patriots will be meaningful.
Even if the Dolphins keep winning, they will need help. This help will probably have to come from the Denver Broncos. The Broncos face a murderous final stretch (at Titans, vs. Patriots, at Chiefs, vs. Raiders). The odds of them coming through that gauntlet clean are not good.
At 10-3 the Raiders seem destined for the postseason. It would take a monumental and total collapse for their course to be changed.
The only other team of concern now is the Pittsburgh Steelers, also 7-5. For now, the Dolphins have the advantage due to the head-to-head tiebreaker earned on October 16 with a 30-15 victory at Hard Rock Stadium. This remains true so long as the Steelers finish with the same or worse record.
Granted, this level of analysis is interesting to the fans and media but not so much with the coaches and players. For them it’s a perpetual 1-0 mentality, which has served to help them rise up from train wreck to relevancy.
They know they’re still in this fight, which is enough for now. Of greater concern is having enough healthy and talented bodies to close the sale. Few, if anyone, is 100% at this point in the season, but the Dolphins’ shallow depth makes this a particularly acute problem for them. As of this writing, a quarter of the roster is on the injury list and several do no better than limited participation in practice. There are other players not listed, such as LG Laremy Tunsil, who are also dealing with nagging issues.
As with Tunsil, the health of the offensive line continues to be the paramount concern. Remember it was the line, together with RB Jay Ajayi, that powered the team’s resurgence. LT Branden Albert (wrist) is gutting it out, as is Tunsil. However, the team’s chances of making the playoffs would be a lot surer if they had center Mike Pouncey (hip) out there.
The return of CB Xavien Howard (knee) and DE Dion Jordan (knee) would also be helpful in shoring up what has lately become a leaky defense. A bad hamstring has slowed MLB Kiko Alonso while OLB Jelani Jenkins’ knee just will not allow him to run at this point. The Ravens knew this, and attacked this middle of the field almost with impunity. Somehow, this issue must be solved and fast. One answer for Alonso could be Mike Hull, who is smallish but has an excellent nose for the ball.
These uncertainties suggest no one can truly know how December will turn out, but it’s certainly refreshing to know that the Dolphins are still a relevant part of it.