Can The Miami Dolphins Win The AFC East?

The Miami Dolphins don’t have the pedigree of the New England Patriots. They don’t have the soap opera quality of the New York Jets. But what the Dolphins do have is at least a contender in the watered-down race for the AFC wild-card spots and you have to give Miami at least a puncher’s chance of upsetting New England in the AFC East race itself. With the Patriots on a bye this week at 5-3, Miami, at 4-3, can move into a tie for first. Let’s look at the overall trajectory of the Dolphins’ season—what they’ve done and what’s to come to get a handle on how seriously we should take their shot at a division title.

Let’s begin with Miami’s basic statistical rankings. They are defensive-oriented, ranking third in the NFL in points allowed, while sitting in just 22nd in scoring. Every strength of their team can be tied to the trenches—they rank 11th in running the ball, they’re 3rd at stopping the run and they’re 6th in sacks. They do allow pass yardage in big chunks, sitting just 27th in allowing teams to gain through the air. With that backdrop, let’s now walk through their first seven games…

Week 1: at Houston (10-30)—Playing on the road at one of the AFC’s best teams is a tough way to break in a rookie quarterback like Ryan Tannehill. And he threw three interceptions in the second quarter when the game got out of hand. The pass coverage allowed Matt Schaub and Andre Johnson to hook up pretty easily.

Week 2: vs. Oakland (35-13)—Reggie Bush made his biggest splash of the season, rushing for 172 yards, while the Dolphin defense completely shut down Darren McFadden. Tannehill was much-improved, at 18/30 for 200 yards and no interceptions. The pass defense allowed yardage, as Carson Palmer threw for 373 yards, but he was inefficient, at 24-for-48. And though Miami didn’t get a sack, they registered nine QB hits. This game is essentially the template of the ideal Miami game if you presume current strengths and weaknesses.

Week 3: vs. NY Jets (20-23, OT)—Another dominating display for the running game, with 185 rush yards and another day where the defensive line pressures the passer, at two sacks and seven hits. Mark Sanchez follows a similar pattern for opposing quarterbacks—he gets 306 yards, but at 21/45, it wasn’t exactly crisp. The edges in running game and pass  rush offset  a mediocre pass rush in a game that could have gone other way.

Week 4: at Arizona (21-24, OT)—The second straight overtime loss and this was even worse, as Arizona tied it with 22 seconds left in regulation on a touchdown pass. The defensive pass rush played its best game, getting eight sacks, more than half from linebacker Cameron Wake. Hartline had a huge game at receiver, with 253 yards. While the running game wasn’t very good, the rush defense was better. The problem? Four turnovers, including a pair of interceptions thrown by Tannehill.

Week 5: at Cincinnati (17-13)—No running game on either side, but Tannehill is efficient—17/26 for 223 yards and no interceptions, while Andy Dalton tosses two picks, and that’s the difference in the game.

Week 6: vs. St. Louis (17-14)–You never throw away a win in the NFL, but this one was not impressive. Miami was destroyed on the ground, losing rush yards 162-36 and beaten in the air, 300-156. But again, give Tannehill his due—at 21/29 for 185 yards and no mistakes, he at least did no harm. While counterpart Sam Bradford played well, the Rams couldn’t overcome 12 penalties. Sometimes you just have to let the opponent beat themselves and that worked for the Fish in this game.

Week 7: BYE

Week 8: at New York Jets (30-9)–Miami’s defensive front got the job done, getting after Sanchez for four sacks and seven QB hits. Tannehill missed this game with a knee injury, but Matt Moore kept the pattern of low-risk play going and Miami won big even though they were modestly outrushed and significantly outpassed.

Tannehill’s status for this coming Sunday against Indianapolis is still up in the air, but he’ll be back for Week 10 at the latest and in either case Moore provides all the same assets. I think the real long-term problem for Miami is that the rush game hasn’t had 100 yards as a team since Week 3, and they haven’t outrushed the opponent since Week 4. Unless Tannehill is going to magically morph into Dan Marino when he comes back, the Dolphins are going to need to be winning this battle.

The defense is genuinely championship-caliber. Wake is having a huge year rushing the passer, and the Dolphins are getting a consistent push from defensive tackle Randy Starks. Being able to pressure the quarterback from the interior is invaluable, because it prevents an opposing offense from rolling the pocket away from the rush, as can happen when the pressure is coming exclusively from one edge player. If Miami stops the run, rushes the quarterback and allows fairly low completion percentages, they can live with some bigger plays made in the passing game.

Miami can feel very good when they look at the coming schedule—it’s at Indianapolis this week, then home against Tennessee, at Buffalo and home against Seattle. It’s very realistic to think the Dolphins would win all four of those games and at least three of four. They can be 7-4 or 8-3 by the time Decemer arrives.

December won’t be a lot of fun, as both games against New England await, as does a road trip to San Francisco. But Miami would at least be in positon to make the playoffs and possibly do more. If they do win their next four games, their confidence would be high and it would also mean that Tannehill is really settled in and playing consistently.

The cities of Miami and Boston have an intriguing sports dynamic going right now. In the NFL and NBA, they’re at each other’s throats and each city has one favorite and one challenger. In baseball, the cities rivaled each other for the honor of most dysfunctional team (I may be a Boston fan, but I feel confident in saying I think we still won that one).

I’m not ready to pick Miami to win the AFC East or even to make the playoffs. But if a partisan Dolphin fan feels like they’ve got a shot, I’m not going to be the one to tell them their nuts—so long as they start running the ball with some authority again.