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2014-15 NFL Season E

Joshua Campbell
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Why the Dolphins could play spoiler down the stretch & compete for the AFC East in '15

11/25/2014 11:33pm
last edited:11/28/2014 1:29pm

The Miami Dolphins have been playing some of the best football in the NFL since Week 4 and could play spoiler over the final five weeks of the season.

While they only play two games against potential playoff contenders, those games will be crucial to determining how the AFC playoff picture will look at the end of the season. In Week 14, they host the 7-4 Baltimore Ravens who is in a logjam in the AFC North and the Wildcard race. The following week, they travel to take on the New England Patriots who are fighting for home field advantage in the AFC.

Since the Dolphins went on the road and dismantled the Oakland Raiders, they have played as good of football in the NFL. Yes, they are just 5-3 over that stretch, but lost close games in those losses against the Green Bay Packers, Detroit Lions and the Denver Broncos.

If it wasn't for Aaron Rodgers putting together an insane final drive in the final two minutes, the Dolphins would have beaten the team that is playing the best in the NFC. In that game, Miami held the Packers' rushing attack completely in check as none of the Packers' runners had over 40 rushing yards and they had pressure on Rodgers all game. Rodgers was sacked three times and completed just 24 of his 42 passing attempts.

For the majority of the game, the Dolphins made Rodgers uncomfortable and prior to the final drive, he had completed just 54 percent of his passes. If it was not for a savvy Rodgers pulling off a fake spike with :12 remaining and the clock rolling, the Dolphins win that game. If he had spiked it, there would have been about ten seconds left and Rodgers would have to take two shots in the end zone from the 16-yard line. It is quite difficult to score from the 16-yard line in two plays when the whole stadium knows you have to throw it to the end zone.

Had Rodgers not pulled off an incredible play, the Dolphins would be 7-4 right now and in the thick of the playoff picture. They also took to the Broncos to the brink last week, holding an 11-point lead heading into the fourth quarter, but ended up losing 39-36.

How have the Dolphins turned things around this season? Two words, Ryan Tannehill. 

Following their 34-15 loss to the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 3, there was speculation that Joe Philbin would turn to Matt Moore under center, essentially ending Tannehill's future in Miami. Well, it's a damn good thing he decided to give Tannehill one last chance.

Since that game, the Miami offense has looked entirely different. Tannehill has been great, making quick decisions and delivering the football accurately. He has even shown the ability to really run as the Dolphins finally decided to tap into his athleticism that made him a wide receiver at Texas A&M and start using some read-option wrinkles that have kept defenses honest and has made Lamar Miller a much more effective runner.

Over that eight game stretch, the Dolphins are averaging 28.4 points per game, Tannehill has completed 71 percent of his passes for 1,958 yards (244.8 yards per game) with 16 touchdowns and six interceptions.

That 71 percent completion rate is what sticks out to me. That is incredible and it shows that he has been efficient, allowing the Dolphins to pick up third downs and extend drives. He has truly stepped and shown his worth as a legitimate franchise quarterback moving forward.

It has not been all about Tannehill however. Mike Wallace is finally starting to earn at least a portion of his huge contract with 48 catches for 592 yards and seven touchdowns this season. Lamar Miller is finally showing that he is a legitimate NFL running back, averaging 4.9 yards per carry this year with five touchdowns, but the Dolphins could still use a second back going into next year as all the other running backs have combined for just two touchdowns. Miller has some serious speed and has shown he can function when running in between the tackles, but Miami could use a thumper running back to help out on the goal line.

While Wallace and Miller have improved, the biggest key to the Dolphins offensive resurgence out of Tannehill has been the other rookie wide receiver from LSU. Odell Beckham Jr. is not the only legitimate talent that the Tigers produced in this draft; Jarvis Landry has emerged as Tannehill's go-to-guy, especially on third down.

Landry leads the Dolphins with 49 catches and has ammassed 450 yards and five touchdowns, including two against the Broncos on Sunday. While averaging under ten yards per reception is far from ideal, the Dolphins do not need him to be a downfield threat. That is what Wallace is for.

Landry has given Miami a reliable option with strong hands and a knack for getting open. As time progresses, his yards per catch will increase because he has the ability to break some big gains after the catch; it just has not happened yet.

With these weapons in place, Miami's offense is becoming a top 10 offense in the NFL. While the o-line has struggled at times, they have been much improved up front and most of their struggles have resulted from injuries. Miami shocked everyone when they selected Ja'Wuan James in the first round and he has paid huge dividends from the get go.

He locked down the right side early on and has played well since shifting over to left tackle when Branden Albert went down a few weeks ago. James left the game Sunday and did not return, but said after the game he was going to be all right.

James is not the only Tennessee product that has been a huge surprise for Miami on the offensive line this season. The former third round pick has developed into a quality player this year and has exceeded expectations when he was forced to move from guard to right tackle due to the Albert injury. However, they could stand to use some more depth up front so expect them to invest another draft pick or two this offseason.

While the defense has struggled at times, they have held some really good offenses in check: Chargers, Patriots, Bears. The defense has talent at all three levels. Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon both excel at getting to the quarterback, combining for 14 sacks so far this season.

They have an extremely talented yound linebacker in Jelani Jenkins, who leads the team in tackles by a wide margin with 79 and he also has shown the knack for rushing the passer with 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles.

Their secondary is extremely talented with Louis Delmas, Reshad Jones, Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan leading the way. But with all the talent they do have, they could still use some help in the offseason.

They could use a run stopper at defensive tackle, another quality linebacker and another defensive end who is a quality run stopper as well. Miami does not really need any more pash rushers as it's just a matter of time until Dion Jordan begins to produce; he has yet to record a sack, but has as much natural ability as anybody at the position in the league. 

When it comes down to it, Miami is just a couple of moves away from competing in 2015 and have an outside chance to even compete for a playoff spot this year. But it will come down to those two big games against the Ravens and Patriots.

Miami matches up well with the Ravens' secondary being completely decimated by injuries and could really put some points against them. However, they will have to find a way to establish the run against the Ravens' stiff front seven. Where I think they can accomplish this is utilizing the read-option a little more frequently than they usually do. If they can get the Ravens defense to hesitate for just a split second with some misdirection, Miller and Tannehill will be able to get free with their exceptional speed.

When it comes to the Patriots, the Dolphins have already shown they can beat them, evidenced by their 33-20 win in Week 1. However, the Pats are a completely different team now than they were to open the season. They are as hot as any team in football and have established themselves as the team to beat.

What the Dolphins were able to do in that game was dominate the line of scrimmage, making the Pats one dimensional while Miami was able to stay balanced throughout the game. Miami outgained then 191 to 89 on the ground and forced Tom Brady to throw the ball a whopping 56 times, completing just 29 of those attempts. But it will be hard to repeat that performance as the Pats have excelled running the football and stopping the run over their current 7-game winning streak.

Plus, the game is in Foxborough this time around and the Pats are as good as any at protecting their home turf. The Dolphins best chance at winning this rematch will be by keeping the Pats offense on the sidelines as much as possible. Brady and co. are simply too good to stop, one could only hope to slow them down and not let them get into a rhythm. Miami already accomplished this once so it could happen again.

Whether or not the Dolphins actually do pull these two games out, they are set up with a young roster that is certainly primed to compete in 2015. And Ryan Tannehill's maturation as a quarterback is the main reason behind that.

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