No one really expected the Dolphins to beat Denver in week 12, did they? Well, maybe some people did. But the reality is, as expected as the loss was, the rest of the NFL was still winning their games, making the playoff push for the Miami Dolphins an uphill climb.
Now, I recognize that this Dolphins team, compared to the last 10 or so iterations, is vastly improved. We have finally seen quarterback play which we can build upon and is dependable. We have finally seen a top-5 defensive unit and receivers that catch more balls than they drop. But, improvement or not, the Dolphins find themselves in the midst of the worst possible season to make a playoff run.
Currently, the AFC boasts 9 teams with 7 or more wins. This is for 6 playoff spots, and the Dolphins are not one of those 9 teams. Lower the bar to 6 wins and the number climbs to 11 teams fighting for 6 playoff spots. This includes 3 teams in the AFC West, 4 in the North, and 3 in the East. The AFC South is a complete joke.
When we look at the AFC North, in particular, all 4 teams are in the hunt with 7-4 records after week 12. I can't remember seeing a division this stacked before. But, if you consider their schedules, Its not exactly a surprise. The AFC North gets the luxury of facing off against the aforementioned joke, AFC South, and the NFC South, where the division LEADER boasts an illustrious 4-7 record. In fact, a deeper look shows the average AFC North opponent has 4.7 wins, while the Dolphins have faced 8 teams thus far with 6 or more wins this season. With this cupcake schedule, its no wonder why every team in the AFC North is clogging up the playoff rankings.
Going forward, the Dolphins must win their games. I project that the Dolphins finish 10-6, but is that enough to get in? Most years, its fine. This year, probably not, unless you are an NFC South team. There, you can probably win your division at 7-9.
Coming up, the Dolphins have an easier schedule than all AFC North opponents, with 2 games against 2-win Jets, a home game against Baltimore, and a home game against Minnesota. The Bengals have the toughest upcoming schedule, and therefore are my pick for "most likely to choke and miss the postseason." Baltimore has the easiest AFC North road ahead, which is why that Week 14 game in Miami is probably going to make or break the season. That is the epitome of a MUST WIN game form Miami. The Dolphins are a better team than the Ravens right now, and the home team advantage should be helpful. But the Ravens always play tough in Miami, and the game will not be a cakewalk.
If the Dolphins want to qualify for the postseason, they need to finish this 5 game stretch at no worse than 4-1, including winning the Baltimore game. Playoffs or not, the improvement the Dolphins have shown this season is monumental. But, this is what it means to be a playoff team - you have to win the tough games. If not, then maybe they don't deserve it this year after all.