The Miami Dolphins are 4-4, with a legitimate shot at finishing above .500 for the first time since 2008. They are on the cusp of the playoffs and, as such, national relevance.
Right where no one expected them to be.
No one, maybe, except themselves.
"I'm surprised too," receiver Brian Hartline said when asked about Miami's hot start to the fall (per The Miami Herald), then adding with a smile, "I thought we'd be 5-3."
Heck, at this point last year, the Dolphins were 1-7 and playing for jobs.
Now, the Dolphins are very clearly trending upward—how much upward and how quickly they get there remain the major question marks.
Here's a midseason review, with a preview of what lies ahead if the Dolphins are to use that upward momentum to catapult into the playoffs.
Ryan Tannehill: In reviewing the biggest movers of the second quarter of the season, Tannehill tops the list. Not only did his numbers get better, his poise on the field came through in big situations, and he did it all with much less of a running game than he had at his disposal to start the 2012 campaign.
In the past four games, Tannehill averages 63.3 percent completions and a 95.5 passer rating.
Compare those numbers to his numbers from the first quarter of the season (55.9 percent completions, 66.4 passer rating), and it's not hard to see why the Dolphins have remained competitive. It's thanks to the quick and somewhat quiet maturation of their rookie quarterback. His ability to carry that momentum into the second half of the season will be imperative to the Dolphins' chances at playing games in the postseason.
Brian Hartline: Someone very strongly objects to the notion that the Dolphins do not have a true No. 1 wide receiver.
In the first eight games of the season, Hartline has set a new career-high for receiving yards in a season. He is three receptions and three touchdowns away from setting a new mark in those categories as well.
At the end of the first quarter of the season, Hartline had just finished setting a Dolphins single-game record for receiving yards. It's hard to get your stock up much from that, but Hartline has done it by being a consistently reliable option for Tannehill in the passing game, pulling in four or more receptions in three of the past four games.
The secondary: The Dolphins have given up big plays in the passing game, which taints what's been an otherwise solid defense. When it's been its ugliest, though, it's gotten in the way of the Dolphins defensive success.
They've given up 35 pass plays of 20 yards or more, which ranks 29th in the NFL.
The Dolphins need to find a way to complement one of the league's top run defenses with a pass defense that can at least prevent teams from completing chunk plays against them at will.
The pass rush: I'll say it again: Big plays in the passing game.
It's not just the coverage, it's the pass rush.
The Dolphins sack the quarterback on just 6.1 percent of drop-backs, which ranks 19th in the NFL. They've been getting relatively consistent pressure over the past four weeks, getting defenders in the vicinity of the opposing quarterback on 32 percent of pass plays (according to ProFootballFocus.com), but that pressure needs to come from more than just defensive end Cameron Wake (more on that later).
Highlight of the Quarter
Reggie Bush's 18-yard touchdown run might be the league-wide rushing highlight of the season.
Make no mistake about it, this is all Reggie. There are defenders coming at him right from the beginning, with two linemen in the backfield. He continues to avoid defenders coming at him from all directions as he picks his way through the defense for the score.
Although we know running the football means nothing if you can't pass it, The Dolphins offense clearly functions much better when the running game is a substantial part of the game plan.
Lowlight of the Quarter
The Dolphins were torched on third down by the Colts, but none were more painful than this 20-yard reception by wide receiver T.Y. Hilton on 3rd-and-20 right before halftime.
The interior defensive line got no pressure, allowing Luck to step up in the pocket away from the outside rush and step into his throw with ease.
Hilton put a double move on Dolphins cornerback R.J. Stanford, and made the catch right at the sticks.
The Dolphins have been extremely efficient in pass defense—they are near the top of the league—but they are one of the league's worst overall pass defenses thanks to big plays like this one.
Three Steps to Second-Half Success
1. Run the football: This has not typically been a problem for the Dolphins, who rank seventh in the league in total rush attempts, but it became a problem at the end of the Colts game, when the Dolphins only ran the ball once in the final 15 minutes of regulation. The game was never out of hand, with the score within three points for the entire fourth quarter.
Particularly, Reggie Bush is their most explosive offensive weapon. Yet in those final 15 minutes, they only even tried to get him the ball twice, once on a nine-yard carry and another time on an incomplete pass.
At just 3.8 yards per carry on the season, it's easy to see why they might have shaky confidence in the running game, but Bush is trending upward after a tough stretch following his injury. Continued trust in him goes a long way in keeping the offense moving forward.
2. Limit big plays: The Dolphins defense would be a lot better if they could just limit the big plays in the passing game.
The inability to stop it creates some concern in situations such as what the Dolphins experienced against the Colts, where big plays get in the way of their typically stout third down defense. The Dolphins are not great at creating turnovers (11 this season ranks 17th), so they need to be able to put the brakes on the big plays.
That comes with more discipline on the back end as well as a more complete pass rush—as in, coming from more than just one direction—as in, more guys than just Cameron Wake getting in the face of the quarterback.
As a team, the Dolphins are only getting sacks on 6.1 percent of opponent's drop-backs (19th in the NFL). It's a team effort, as the Patriots can attest, and although it was a strong second quarter from the defense overall, there's plenty the Dolphins can do to improve.
3. Find the "third" wide receiver: A lot is made about having different prototype receivers on the roster. The Dolphins' talent at receiver has long been in question, but head coach Joe Philbin has always said it's not about having the prototypes so much as about having guys who can get open and act as the first, second or third read on any given play.
Right now, we know the top two options in the passing game are Brian Hartline and Davone Bess.
Behind them? A lot of question marks. They've tried getting Jabar Gaffney a bit more involved, with 33.1 percent of the team's snaps in the past two weeks (according to ProFootballFocus.com), but the receiver has just three receptions in that span.
Is that receiver on the roster? We'll find out over the course of the rest of the season, but if someone emerges from the depth chart to claim the spot, it would be a huge boost to the offense.
There's plenty of room for growth, but plenty for the Dolphins to build on as they grow.
They get a nice softball to start the second half of the season with the Titans and the Bills up next on the schedule, but with two games against the Patriots and a road game against the 49ers still left on the schedule, they can't afford to have any slip-ups in their final eight games if they want to capitalize on their playoff opportunity.
Yes, it is safe to say we are approaching must-win territory for the Dolphins.
But these are the good kinds of must-wins, the kind that Dolphins fans haven't seen in a long time, and much better than the kind of must-wins the Dolphins have grown accustomed to.
Unlike those must-wins, though, which were the difference between a really bad team and simply a bad team, these games could be the difference between an average team and a playoff team.
Erik Frenz is the AFC East lead blogger for Bleacher Report. Be sure to follow Erik on Twitter and "like" the AFC East blog on Facebook to keep up with all the updates. Unless specified otherwise, all quotes are obtained firsthand.
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