They may be 6-8 entering Week 16, but the Miami Dolphins' playoff pulse is still beating.
But, in order to actually snag an AFC Wild Card berth, the Dolphins need some substantial assistance from Lady Luck.
The Dolphins need a complex string of events to unfold in the next two weeks in order to sneak into an AFC Wild Card spot. Here's exactly what the Phins need, per Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post:
In other words, don't get your hopes up.
Barring a miraculous two-week stretch, Miami will not be playing past Week 17. Nobody expected it to before the season, anyway. So, although this season was ugly at times, the Dolphins have met or exceeded most expectations.
The Dolphins might not make a playoff appearance in 2012, but there are still plenty of positive takeaways from this season.
Few expected Ryan Tannehill to make more than a handful of appearances in 2012, but he became the focal point of this entire season once Joe Philbin crowned him the team's starter in August.
Although Tannehill's numbers are quite underwhelming—2,929 passing yards, 10 TDs, 12 INTs—they are not representative of his season because the Dolphins gave him nothing to work with.
Tannehill was tasked with quarterbacking an offense that features one of the league's worst wide receiving corps, a dilapidated offensive line and a pedestrian rushing attack. Yet, he has led Miami to six wins, and both Brian Hartline and Davone Bess are having the most productive seasons of their careers.
All this being said, Tannehill still has much to prove. Can he lead comebacks? How will he fare in high-pressure situations? Is he capable of quarterbacking an efficient aerial attack like the one Joe Philbin ran in Green Bay?
Once the Dolphins give him a legitimate supporting we can start answering these questions.
Either way, the future looks very bright for No. 17.
Whether you support the "Fireland" movement, give Miami's GM some credit for hitting on his first two first-round draft picks: Jared Odrick and Mike Pouncey.
In his first season as a starter, Odrick has registered 33 tackles and five sacks. Those aren't spectacular numbers until you consider he's playing out of position. At 6'5", 302 pounds, Odrick is best suited as a defensive tackle in a 4-3 scheme, not a defensive end. The fact that he has managed to thrive nonetheless is an indictment of his talent.
If the Dolphins do not re-sign Randy Starks, then Odrick will move inside in 2013,.
Then, there's Mike Pouncey, whom Ireland selected with the 15th overall pick in the 2011 draft. Ireland, along with analysts across the board, called him a 'safe' pick—but it has turned out to be an extraordinary one. Pouncey has emerged as one of the NFL's preeminent centers in only his second season.
In a dream scenario, he'll be Ryan Tannehill's center for the next decade.
The 2011 season was an ugly one for Miami's linebacker corps.
Koa Misi saw disconcerting regression from a promising rookie campaign, free-agent signee Kevin Burnett got off to a very slow start, and Karlos Dansby—who showed up to training camp 20 pounds overweight—underwhelmed.
Whether it was the transition to the 4-3, their own personal motivations or a combination of both, all three have rebounded in 2012.
Though Misi is clearly the weak link among this trio, he's still on pace for a 73-tackle, five-sack season—a marked improvement from his 34-tackle, one-sack 2011 campaign. Overall, he has been solid, but he still may have to fend off competition for his starting job next season.
Burnett, meanwhile, is quietly having a stellar season. He's on pace to finish the season with 104 tackles, and he even earned a spot on Pro Football Focus' Pro Bowl roster. He's their third-ranked 4-3 outside linebacker.
Finally, there's Dansby, who is having his best season as a Dolphin despite playing most of it with a torn biceps. He's on pace for a 127-tackle year, which would be a career high. Dansby has also made notable strides in his pass-coverage abilities, something he struggled with in 2010 and 2011.
By gutting the roster this offseason, the Dolphins put some inexperienced, unproven players into big roles. Two formerly unrecognized players stepped up and responded to the challenge: Brian Hartline and Reshad Jones.
Once the Dolphins hired Joe Philbin, Hartline was immediately pegged as a potential breakout star. His strengths—speed, intelligence and soft hands—made him an ideal fit for the West Coast offense, but he had amassed only 109 receptions and five touchdowns in three seasons.
So, when injuries sidelined him for the entire offseason, he promptly fell off the radar.
Despite meager time to develop chemistry with Ryan Tannehill and get firsthand experience in this new offense, Hartline went off for 67 receptions and more than 1,000 yards receiving—shattering his previous career highs.
Reshad Jones, meanwhile, became a bit of a pariah after struggling through the 2011 season. He was a liability in both pass and run coverage, yet the Dolphins didn't waver in support of this former fifth-round draft pick.
That patience proved to be invaluable as Jones has not only emerged as a viable starting safety—he has emerged as one of the best safeties in the NFL. He ranks third among all safeties by Pro Football Focus thanks to outstanding pass coverage and stout run support. Jones is one of the only true playmakers on Miami's defense, and it'll be exciting to watch him grow into 2013.
The jury is still out on Joe Philbin; it will be for at least another two years.
But, so far, I'd say he's passing the test.
Philbin is a rookie head coach who inherited a depleted roster. Jeff Ireland signed a slew of veteran free agents—David Garrard, Chad Johnson, Legedu Naanee, Gary Guyton—to bolster it, but none of even remain with the team. Even Richard Marshall, the Dolphins' biggest offseason signing, played only four games before landing on injured reserve.
Despite all of these free-agent flops and hugely disappointing players—Roberto Wallace, Julius Pruitt, Charles Clay—Philbin has coached the Dolphins to six wins and kept them afloat in the AFC playoff picture entering Week 16.
With time to build and mold his own roster, he could be a fixture on the sidelines for years to come.
By no means should Miami's 2012 draft class be deemed a successful one.
Not yet, anyway.
Outside of Ryan Tannehill, nobody in this class has done anything to instill a great deal of confidence they'll grow into quality NFL players. However, nearly all—except for Michael Egnew, obviously—have shown flashes that suggest they just might.
Jonathan Martin has been absolutely manhandled at times, but he has looked like a perfectly competent tackle at others. With a full offseason to bolster his strength and perhaps move back to his comfort zone at left tackle, he could live up to his second-round draft billing.
Olivier Vernon had a dominant Week 6 performance but has been mostly irrelevant otherwise. He needs to plow through the rookie wall and help upgrade a thin Dolphins pass rush. Vernon can definitely emerge as a solid situational pass-rusher, though. Miami may also give him a shot at linebacker.
Lamar Miller was also a non-factor for most of this season but there's no denying his potential. Although he has registered only 36 carries, he has averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry. With Reggie Bush likely on the outs, he'll have an opportunity to shine in 2013. He'll be a wild card entering next season.
Fifth-round pick Josh Kaddu has been a ghost, but seventh-round pick Kheeston Randall held his own when worked into the defensive line rotation.
Finally, seventh-round pick Rishard Matthews is quietly becoming of a very intriguing prospect from. The Dolphins have only activated him for six games, but he has delivered when called upon. In the last three weeks, he has hauled in five receptions for 59 yards. He looks the part on the field, so it may just be a matter of opportunity for Matthews to establish himself as a viable NFL wideout.
Signing Cameron Wake from the CFL in 2009 is the best move the Dolphins have made in the last decade.
Wake is the only bona fide star on this roster, and he single-handedly elevates this defense to another level.
Although Marcus Thigpen will never make an equivalent impact, he's shaping up as another primetime pickup from north of the border. Thigpen has returned both a punt and a kick for a touchdown this season. He's averaging 28.7 yards per kick return and 12 yards per punt return, lamenting him as one of the NFL's deadliest returners.
The Dolphins have been searching for an explosive return man like Thigpen for years, and it appears as though they finally got their guy.
When both Artis Hicks and Eric Steinbach went down with injuries in the preseason, John Jerry was catapulted into a starting role.
This was a frightening proposition for the Dolphins given how poorly Jerry played in his first two NFL seasons.
Jerry knew this was his last shot at redemption, and while he still hasn't become the mauling, dominant guard Jeff Ireland drafted over Jimmy Graham, he has played serviceably as Miami's starting right guard.
The Dolphins can still stand to benefit from adding a quality guard this offseason, if only to bring in some competition. But, if Jerry can actually stay in shape—and maybe, just maybe, actually get fit—then he retain his starting job.
A distinct chasm is forming between Dolphins fans aboard the Fireland bandwagon and those in favor of giving him another chance at building the Super Bowl roster this city so desperately longs for.
Whether it's Ireland or somebody else at the helm this offseason, the Dolphins are blessed with a sincere chance to start over.
With nine draft picks (including five in the first three rounds), 24 players slated for free agency and loads of cap space, Miami's brass can rebuild this team into one that caters perfectly to Joe Philbin's philosophies.
The Dolphins have enough cap space to reel in a star player, and they have enough draft picks to trade up and grab multiple blue-chip prospects. They will not have such an opportunity for a very long time—at least, let's hope not—so it's vital they capitalize.