When the month of November began, the Miami Dolphins looked like a dead team walking. They were 4-4 and nominally in the NFL playoff picture, but the scandal involving offensive guard Richie Incognito’s bullying and harassment of offensive tackle Jonathan Martin–with the approval of teammates and potentially of coaches–threatened to engulf the team.
Media outlets, most definitely including TheSportsNotebook, wrote off Miami and figured they’d go down the path that was ultimately taken by Mike Shanahan and the Washington Redskins and just disintegrate and quit on the season.
But a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion. The Dolphins started playing some good football. They’ve won three of five, and are tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the final playoff berth in the AFC. To assess the Miami Dolphins playoff chances, let’s review how they’ve played the last five games–the period of time when they had to go without the suspended Incognito and the departed Martin–and then look ahead to the last three weeks.
November 11: On a Monday Night in Tampa Bay, the prophecies of oblivion look accurate. Miami loses to previously winless Tampa Bay 22-19, while rushing for just two yards. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is sacked twice, but hit eight more times. It all seems to point to a lousy offensive line and a loss to a lousy team.
What we’ve seen since is that the Buccaneers have turned the corner, including a notable win at first-place Detroit. A close loss in Tampa Bay no longer looks like a complete indictment of a football operation.
November 17: In the first of a string games against other teams on the AFC playoff bubble, Miami scrapes out a 20-16 home win over San Diego. The Dolphins played crisp football, committing just three penalties to the Chargers’ ten, and the running game reappeared, with 104 yards on 19 rush attempts. With San Diego currently sitting on 6-7 and Miami at 7-6, this victory looms larger with each passing week.
November 24: A home loss to Carolina is nothing to be ashamed of, given the Panthers were in the midst of an eight-game win streak that included winning at San Francisco and beating New England. Furthermore, Miami had Carolina on the ropes, having played excellent defense against Cam Newton all day long.
While the running game didn’t work, no one runs well on the Panther defense this season, and Tannehill made up for it with 310 passing yards, and receiver Mike Wallace had his most productive day of the year with 127 of those yards. Newton finally pulled a couple rabbits out of his hat on the game’s final drive and Carolina won 20-16, but Miami had played well.
December 1: Another crucial game against a team that’s currently 6-7, saw the Dolphins batter the Jets on the road, 23-3. Tannehill was again sharp, throwing for 331 yards and this time it was Brian Hartline having his best receiving day of the year, with 127 yards.
December 8: Two straight weeks, the Dolphins win on the road in cold weather against a fellow wild-card contender. Their 34-28 win in Pittsburgh is remembered for the wild ending where Steeler receiver Antonio Brown stepped out of bounds on what would have been a game-winning touchdown play.
What that shouldn’t overlook is that Miami was the better team all game long. They ran the ball, with Daniel Thomas having his best day of the year with 105 rush yards. Tannehill was sharp, 20/33 for 200 yards and this time tight end Charles Clay was his favored target, seven catches for 97 yards. And the Miami defense stopped the run. The fluke would have been if they lost.
These five games as a whole show a team coming together and playing cohesive football. We see Tannehill solving some of the turnover problems that plagued him during an earlier four-game losing streak and spreading the ball around to different targets. We see different skill position players all having season-best performances.
What that suggests is an offensive line giving these players a chance to perform, and while no one outside the locker room knows what’s really going on inside, it’s reasonable to look at the post-scandal statements of support for Incognito and see a team that has rallied together in the face of adversity.
I want to briefly digress and say that on the more important human level, I find this disgusting. If the Dolphins have really rallied around the concept of systematic and dehumanizing bullying at the expense of the victim, it speaks to something very sick in the culture of football. I love this sport and see the good it can do for people, but I’m also not blind to the cult-like mentality that seems to take a greater hold here than in either sports. I hope the latter isn’t what’s inspiring Miami, but if it is…well, that’s just sick.
When we move into the more cold-blooded world of football analysis, whatever is motivating Miami is clearly having a positive effect. The schedule isn’t easy the last three weeks, but it’s home-friendly. They get New England at home this Sunday and the Jets at home in Week 17, with a road trip to Buffalo mixed in.
Winning all three of those games is certainly in the cards. Miami is at a tiebreaker disadvantage with Baltimore, but the Ravens have a tough row to hoe, with road games in Detroit and Cincinnati, and their own home battle with New England. If the Dolphins go 3-0, they’re almost certainly going to get in, and even at 2-1, you’d have to like the odds that the Ravens could lose twice. It’s a position no one thought Miami would be in at the outset of November.