Last Chance for the Dolphins

Is there a more disappointing team this season than the Miami Dolphins? Sure, there are other teams that haven’t played as well as they were supposed to, or had too many injuries, or had their weaknesses exploited all year. The Dolphins were so close to being a contender this year, though. If they had held on for late wins against the Packers and Broncos, they’d be 9-4 right now, with victories over 3 of the 4 best teams in the NFL heading into their Week 14 showdown in New England. Having beaten the Patriots in Week 1, the Dolphins would have been playing for first place. Instead, they’re now in a must-win game. A loss would be devastating to their playoff chances, with 12 AFC teams sharing a record equal to Miami’s or better. Sunday’s game against the Patriots is the last chance for the Dolphins this season, and it comes in arguably the hardest place to win on the road in the NFL.

It’s tough to pinpoint why exactly the Dolphins are only 7-6. They’re a pretty solid team all around. On offense, their running game ranks 12th in the NFL. Ryan Tannehill is having the best season of his young career and has shown major improvements in several areas of his game. The Dolphins have a versatile receiving corps with a deep threat in Mike Wallace, a tough-to-cover slot receiver in Jarvis Landry, and a mismatch-creating piece in athletic tight end Charles Clay. The offensive line is a solid unit overall, led by center Samson Satele and Mike Pouncey inside.

The Dolphins are also very talented on defense. They have the ability to get to the quarterback off the edge with Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon. Jared Odrick is a physical and athletic force inside. The Dolphins have speed and strength at the linebacker position in Jelani Jenkins and Koa Misi. They have Brent Grimes, who is among the best cornerbacks in all of the NFL. There is no unit on this team that could be considered a severe weakness.

Sure, there are individuals that teams can attack. Every team has those somewhere. The Ravens attacked those weaknesses last week, sicking Elvis Dumervil and Terrell Suggs on rookie left tackle Ja’Wuan James and right tackle Dallas Thomas (both players had to move to those positions midseason due to left tackle Branden Albert’s injury). Cornerback Cortland Finnegan’s injury has left an area of the secondary exposed in his absence. The early-season loss of Knowshon Moreno took a physical presence away from Miami’s running game. Injuries could be a decent explanation for their 7-6 record. Still, from a talent standpoint, there aren’t many teams in the NFL that are much better top to bottom than the Dolphins.

What stands out most, and might serve as the best explanation for Miami’s underperformance this season, is the lack of big plays on offense. They have just 40 plays of 20+ yards, ranking them 28th in the league. They have just 29 completions of 20+ yards, which ranks 30th in the NFL, despite the presence of a prototypical vertical threat in Mike Wallace. The Dolphins are also last in the league in big-play touchdowns (20+ yards), with just 1 all season. Additionally, the Dolphins have 38 rushes this season for negative yards, which is the 6th most in the league. They rank 21st in sacks allowed with 34.

Despite the offensive system, which is meant to sustain the offense and move the ball with short passes, the lack of big plays and the abundance of negative plays has translated into inconsistent results. The Dolphins will move the ball well for a drive, then a run for negative yards or a sack will set them back, forcing them to settle for a field goal or punt the ball away. Negative plays set Miami back worse than other teams because they don’t make enough explosive plays. This might explain why a team that moves the ball consistently and often looks good on film ends up with so many underwhelming performances, including 5 games with less than 20 points scored.

The Dolphins have enough talent to win in New England on Sunday. Chances are not very good that they will, though. While the playoffs truly appear to be a long shot this season, Miami is close. The talent is there, and they aren’t that far away from harnessing it. Maybe a year from now, they’ll be playing for a division title instead of desperately clinging to their Wild Card hopes.

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