Are the Miami Dolphins a Contender in the AFC Playoff Race?

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Are the Miami Dolphins a Contender in the AFC Playoff Race?
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We're four games into the season, and the Miami Dolphins stand at 1-3 after losing a heartbreaker in Arizona.

This is their second heartbreaking defeat in a row. In the last two weeks both games came down to overtime, and you can argue that in both games Miami was a missed field goal away from winning the game.

But despite their record, a good question to ask is, could Miami actually be a playoff team?

Not just next season, but in 2012?

Believe it or not, I have to say yes. The progress of this team—mixed in with the overall mediocrity of the AFC—gives Miami a great chance to sneak into the 2012 postseason.

Next week's game will be an important test as Miami hits the road to take on the Cincinnati Bengals. The Bengals thus far are 3-1, however it should be noted that the Bengals' three victories have come against the Cleveland Browns, Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars.

You can make an argument that the Dolphins are better than all three of those teams. While Washington stands at 2-2, Miami has had the tougher schedule. On the other side of the coin, the Jaguars and Browns are two of the worst teams in the NFL. The Bengals' only true test came in Week 1 against the Baltimore Ravens. Cincinnati walked out of Baltimore licking its wounds after a 44-13 loss to the Ravens.

MIami controlled most of the game against Arizona, but let it slip away. This won't continue based off of their play on both sides of the ball.

The only game Miami wasn't too competitive in was against a team that thus far has played far better than Baltimore, the Houston Texans. Even then, Miami's margin of defeat against Houston was lower than Cincinnati's margin of defeat against the Ravens.

Cincinnati is another winnable game for Miami, one in a string of winnable games in their next seven games prior to their first matchup against the Patriots in December. All of those games are games in which Miami should either be favored outright, or be underdogs by less than four points.

After the Bengals comes a home game against the Rams, followed by a bye week. After their bye, Miami faces a Revis-less New York Jets team that seems lost. Miami might have lost the battle in Week 3, but the war looks like it's shaping up for a Dolphins victory.

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The Jets game will be followed by games against AFC doormats in the Indianapolis Colts and Tennessee Titans, a Thursday Night game against division rival the Buffalo Bills in Buffalo, followed by a Sunday game against the Seattle Seahawks at 1 p.m. ET, a west coast team who will have to travel east to face a team on 10 days' rest.

By the time Miami is done with that part of its schedule, they should be at worst 4-7 (and even that is too low if you ask me), while the best-case scenario is obviously 8-3 (my prediction: 7-4, with wins against the Rams, Jets, Titans, Bills and Seahawks). The level this team has played in their last two weeks tells me that this team can win games and, more importantly, should.

Ryan Tannehill is the main reason why. His game against Arizona was one that came within two yards of the record books, yet still ended in a loss. While Tannehill turned over the ball three times (which was enough for me to give him a C in my report card), he looked phenomenal during the rest of the game, and an argument can be made that Tannehill doesn't have the talent around him to make more magic.

Tannehill should be the front-runner for the NFL's rookie of the year by the end of this season.

 

The most encouraging sign for Tannehill has been the fact that the Jets and Cardinals, his last two opponents, have been good defensive teams.

Miami's defense is another reason for optimism, primarily their front seven. The Dolphins have adjusted well to the 4-3, and at times have played in that set as if they've been a 4-3 team for the last decade.

While some of you are with me in thinking that Miami is a playoff team, I'm sure there are others who are pessimistic. I don't blame you, this team has burned me plenty of times. However, the level of play this team has achieved in the last three weeks shows me that this is a team on the rise, and the rise might not even have to wait for a full season.

It can occur this season instead. 

I'm not going to encourage you to go out and buy playoff tickets just yet, but what I am telling you to do is save your money just in case the opportunity arises.

For come December, Miami will be in the thick of it, exactly where no one expected them to be.

 

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