How the overachieving Dolphins can win the AFC East


DAVIE, Fla. — The Miami Dolphins are playoff contenders and could become legitimate challengers to steal an AFC East title. Read that again if you need to, yes the Dolphins.

On a five-game win streak, the Dolphins (6-3) are starting to earn respect around the league as more than just an up-and-coming rebuilding team. There’s something special brewing in South Florida in 2020. So to quote former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, “Playoffs?!?” Yes, we’re talking about the playoffs.

The Dolphins, led by a playmaking defense and special teams group, coach Brian Flores and efficient situational play by rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, are exceeding expectations. They might be here a year early, but this overachieving Dolphins team can win the AFC East.

Let’s break down why they are in position to do so and how they can close the deal.

First, the numbers. The Dolphins have a 50% chance to make playoffs, eighth-best chances in a loaded AFC, so it’s a toss-up whether the Dolphins will be playing in the second week of January. Miami also has a 21% chance to win the AFC East — their highest all season — and steal it away from Buffalo Bills (7-3), who have been a favored to win the division all season.

The Dolphins are the NFL’s sixth most-efficient team, per ESPN’s FPI trailing Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Baltimore, Green Bay and Tampa Bay. That indicates the Dolphins’ success isn’t a fluke, they have played like a legitimate contender. Miami has by far the NFL’s most efficient special teams unit and the 10th most efficient defense, which helps boost what has been an average offense which ranks 15th in efficiency.

In the face of adversity such as benching Ryan Fitzpatrick for Tagovailoa or the late week COVID-19 situation that kept a handful of coaches and players out over the past two games, the Dolphins have been seemingly unfazed. They have risen to the moment, which bodes well for them to keep it up despite being young.

“We have a mentally tough team,” Flores said. “It’s a week-to-week league, how we prepare, how we practice, how we walk through is a direct correlation to how we play. They understand that. This is a hungry group, they fight for each other, it’s important to them, they’re competitive, so they work at it and we’re seeing the fruits of that have labor out on the field.”

Flores is the quintessential one-week-at-a-time coach, so he’ll undoubtedly hate the concept of looking ahead to the playoffs. The Dolphins aren’t a perfect team but can win the AFC East.

Though the New England Patriots (4-5) are coming off a big win against the Baltimore Ravens, ESPN FPI believes the AFC East is essentially a two-team race between the Dolphins (21%) and Bills (75%).

Thanks to the Arizona Cardinals‘ Hail Mary win against the Bills, the Dolphins will be tied for the AFC East lead with a win Sunday at Denver.

“I’m glad the NFC West could do us a favor there. I was waiting on one of them,” Dolphins center Ted Karras joked. “Obviously we’re in the hunt and we got to keep executing and winning games and doing what we’re doing.”

That would set up a six-game sprint for the AFC East title. So let’s take a look at upcoming schedules:

Miami: at Denver, at New York Jets, vs. Cincinnati, vs. Kansas City, vs. New England, at Las Vegas, at Buffalo

Buffalo: Week 11 bye, vs. Los Angeles Chargers, at San Francisco, vs. Pittsburgh, at Denver, at New England, vs. Miami

Similar schedules having a difficult challenge against a championship contender that may end as losses (Kansas City for Miami, Pittsburgh for Buffalo) and a pair of potentially toss-up games, along with three other contests they will likely be favored in. The Dolphins will likely be favored in their next three and if they win them all, they would be 9-3 headed into a difficult fourth quarter of the season.

The Week 17 game — Miami at Buffalo — could essentially be an AFC East championship game. That would be the case if the Dolphins and Bills head into final week of the regular season with the same record, or Miami up one game.

Given the Dolphins’ early season losses to the Patriots and Bills, they will likely need a win against the Bills in Week 17 to win the AFC East. The Dolphins control their own destiny for the division.

The key will be sustaining their current level of play on defense and special teams while improving on offense. Tagovailoa is 3-0 with five touchdowns to zero interceptions, but the Dolphins’ defense ranks fifth in efficiency and sixth in expected points added (EPA) while he’s been the starter. The defense ranked 23rd in efficiency and 11th in EPA in the first seven weeks when Fitzpatrick was the starter. The offense, meanwhile, ranked 13th in efficiency under Fitzpatrick and 23rd under Tagovailoa.

Where Tagovailoa has lifted the offense is in the red zone. The Dolphins have scored a touchdown on eight of 10 drives under Tagovailoa compared to eight of 15 under Fitzpatrick.

The Dolphins are an overachieving bunch with a franchise quarterback, what appears to be the right coach and a bright future that includes two first-round and second-round picks including a likely top-10 selection thanks to the Houston Texans.

Dolphins fans go into the holiday season worrying about playoff chances rather than draft position for the first time in a long while.

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