The Miami Dolphins' goal for 2013 is to finally turn the corner towards success. The franchise hopes to shed the suffocating mediocrity that has clouded its every step for the past decade plus and don a new shroud of greatness.
Every move Miami has made in the offseason thus far has been made in service to that goal. Pouring cash over Mike Wallace, Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to bring them to Miami shows speaks to that goal. Re-signing key players like Brian Hartline and Randy Starks speaks to that goal.
At this point, you get the sense that the Dolphins don't just hope to be good in 2013. They expect to be good.
But as anyone will tell you, it takes a lot more than great expectations to succeed in the NFL, and the Dolphins have a rough road to travel in 2013. According to NFL.com, the Dolphins have the eighth most difficult schedule in 2013. Their opponents had a collective record of 133-123-0 in 2012.
For a team looking to do much more than simply improve upon its 7-9 finish last season, Miami certainly faces a daunting schedule. The path to success will lead Miami uphill on a treacherous climb—here's to hoping the Dolphins can find solid footing.
I know, it may seem worrisome at first glance, but let's break down Miami's 2013 schedule from easiest to hardest games. Things ultimately may not look as bad as they previously did. Or maybe they will; in which case, brace yourselves.
The Dolphins have a tough schedule, but they do start the season with a seemingly easy game.
Forget about the fact that this is a road game. The Dolphins should walk into Cleveland as the superior team, and that's all it should take.
The Browns finished last in the AFC North last year with a 5-11 record. They were average-to-bad in all statistical elements of the game, and their quarterback situation is up in the air. Aside from adding Paul Kruger in free agency, Cleveland hasn't done much to drag itself out of the doldrums.
The Dolphins should be able to deal with Cleveland regardless of location. This will help wipe away the stench of the last time these two teams faced, which resulted in a one-point victory for the Browns.
The best thing I can say about the New York Jets is that the train wreck their franchise has become is still salvageable. But, man, is it going to take some work.
The Jets finished up 6-10 last season, splitting their series with the Dolphins. It wasn't a pretty year for the Jets, with a lot of discussion centered around their quarterback woes and Mark Sanchez's inability to even shake hands with consistency.
And then there's Tim Tebow. The guy who arguably got most of the Jets' headlines yet barely saw the field. Seems like a pretty telling sign of the state of this franchise.
The Jets were in salary cap hell to start free agency, so they were practically bleeding players just to find a little bit of cash. With rumors still swirling that their best player, Darrelle Revis, could possibly be traded, things are not looking good for New York.
This should be an easy victory for Miami.
Yep, I'm predicting the sweep.
Frankly, Miami should have swept the Jets last year if not for Dan Carpenter's missed field goal in overtime.
I doubt the Dolphins will need to worry too much about the Jets taking them to overtime in 2013. These are two different teams on different trajectories. The Dolphins are seemingly elevating, while the Jets appear to be slipping deeper into disappointment.
So why is the home game listed as more difficult than the road game? Simply because it's the season finale. The Dolphins could be in a must-win position to make the playoffs, which puts the Jets in a prime spoiler role. However, I still think the Dolphins pull it out as the superior team.
The Bills should provide a bit more of a challenge to the Fins than the Jets in 2013, simply because they possess more talent.
Buffalo finally dumped the overpaid Ryan Fitzpatrick and signed Kevin Kolb from Arizona. How much of an improvement over Fitzpatrick Kolb will be is yet to be seen, but he stands a better shot to succeed in Buffalo than he did in the desert.
But Kolb may not even get the chance to start. The Bills are reportedly interested in both Geno Smith and E.J. Manuel, two of the hotter prospects in an otherwise chilly quarterback pool. Either player would be an improvement over what the Bills currently have.
Regardless of who lines up under center for Buffalo, they'll have one of the best running back tandems in the league in Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller (provided they can stay healthy). Steve Johnson is becoming a fairly reliable No. 1 receiver, so he should provide some assistance on the outside.
The Bills did have to cut ties with a lot of players, though. Key players like Nick Barnett and Andy Levitre are gone. Their absences should create sizable problems for the Bills.
The Dolphins enter this game fresh off a bye week, which combined with the better roster should make this an easy win.
The Bolts have won their last two against the Dolphins, but I expect that to change this year.
The Chargers have earned the unfortunate moniker of the NFL's most underachieving team. For every amazing performance they had, they would cough up another steaming pile of disappointment. No matter how strong their roster appeared on paper, they could never put it together on the field.
While they still have Philip Rivers, who I maintain has the skills to be one of the NFL's best at his position, their secondary was gutted in free agency. They should rebuild it in the draft, but who knows how good the unit will be.
In more practical terms, the Chargers must travel all the way across the country, a trip that's never easy to make. A short week (the Dolphins play on Monday night the week prior to this game) could impact Miami's performance, but the Fins should still have the upper hand in this one.
Sure, it's still in the bottom rung of Miami's schedule, but this is a game that could sneak up on the Dolphins.
Much like the Week 17 closer against the Jets, the Dolphins could be battling for a playoff spot. That would put Buffalo in the spoiler role—or maybe Buffalo surprises everyone and is also battling for a playoff spot.
Either way, the Dolphins will need this victory. That it's in Buffalo in the middle of December does not bode well for the Fins, as that could mean snowstorms.
But weather aside, I still don't see Buffalo doing enough to guarantee a win.
Miami will finally get the opportunity to face Cam Newton in 2013. It will be the former Auburn Tiger's first trip to Sun Life Stadium.
This midseason scuffle should be a fun matchup, but ultimately I think the pendulum will swing in Miami's favor.
The Panthers lost some key talent on defense this offseason (Chris Gamble, linebackers James Anderson and Jason Phillips), and although they added a few players in free agency to patch the openings, there is still some drop-off to be expected.
More importantly, which Cam Newton will the Dolphins see? Will he be the superstar phenom that set the league ablaze as a rookie, or the emotionally-stunted mystery that struggled his way through a sophomore slump? If it's the former, look for Miami's new athletic linebackers Dannell Ellerbe and Philip Wheeler to limit his yardage on runs and cover the middle of the field.
If it's the latter, the Dolphins shouldn't have too much to worry about. The Panthers will only go as far as Newton will take them.
This Week 10 showdown with Tampa will be the Dolphins' second Monday night game and their final appearance in prime time for 2013.
Now we start to reach the tough parts of Miami's schedule. Tampa may have finished 7-9 in 2012, but those numbers aren't completely indicative of the Bucs' quality. Quarterback Josh Freeman and receiver Vincent Jackson helped the team finish 10th in passing yards per game. That should cause concern for the Dolphins, a team whose only starting-caliber cornerback on the roster is recovering from an extreme foot injury.
However, the reason this is still the easiest of Miami's tough games is Tampa's defense. Simply put, it was atrocious against the pass in 2012. Signing Dashon Goldson certainly helps the issue, but it doesn't fix it.
Ryan Tannehill showed enough promise to faithfully assume he'll be better next season. Combine that with his new toys in Mike Wallace and Dustin Keller, and Tampa could find themselves in trouble on Monday night.
The Dolphins seemed like they were overmatched when they faced the Bengals last season, yet they were able to frustrate quarterback Andy Dalton and come away with a close victory.
This year, despite a seemingly improved roster for the Fins, they may run into some trouble. The Bengals will more or less field the same team they had last season, as they've been relatively quiet in free agency.
The biggest hurdle for the Dolphins actually has nothing to do with this game itself. Rather, the circumstances surrounding it. It's a Thursday night game, meaning Miami will be on a short week of preparation for the Bengals.
It also just so happens to be a short week following Miami's toughest game of the season: at New England. The outcome of that game could leave Miami rattled without enough time to shake it off and prepare for Cincinnati.
Sure, the Baltimore Ravens lost a ton on defense this offseason, but they're still the defending Super Bowl champs. This won't be a pushover.
Anquan Boldin's departure will hurt the Ravens passing game, but their offense should revolve around Ray Rice anyway. Defensively, this is a team with a lot of holes, but the signings of Elvis Dumervil and Michael Huff should help alleviate some of the pain of dealing with the patchwork.
The Ravens have owned this series lately, winning four of the last five since 2005. The last three games were blowouts in Baltimore's favor.
This game will be even tougher for Miami as it will be on the tail end of a brutal opening stretch. Miami could come into this game carrying wounds and bruises that it simply cannot overcome.
Big Ben and the Steelers should prove a formidable challenge for Miami.
It'll be interesting to see Mike Wallace meet up against his former team. It'll be more interesting to see how Pittsburgh is faring without its biggest deep threat. Emmanuel Sanders and Antonio Brown should still provide Roethlesberger with plenty of weapons, but the Steelers will need someone to replace Rashard Mendenhall.
Adding to the toughness of this game is the schedule placement and location. It's in Pittsburgh in December, so it's likely to be fairly cold. Moreover, it's in the stretch of the season that could be most important for the Dolphins as they fight for a playoff spot.
The Steelers are the kind of team that's been there before and they know how to win. That could spell trouble for a Dolphins team that doesn't have the same experience.
The second meeting between the Dolphins and Patriots figures to be the easier of the two for Miami. But that's only because it's at home.
With playoffs potentially on the line for both teams (and possibly even the AFC East crown if Miami is for real), this will be a huge game.
The Dolphins will have a huge boost with their reinvigorated home crowd cheering them on. Assuming the Dolphins are fighting for a postseason birth, I have to imagine the fans would be blisteringly intense.
Of course, Miami would still have to stop Tom Brady. They'll need a vastly improved secondary, so the draft is incredibly important for filling that need. On the other side, Tannehill will have to prove he can hang with the best of the best. The Dolphins will have to outscore the Patriots, which is no small feat.
The New Orleans Saints will host the Dolphins in the middle of a terrifying opening stretch.
This will be Miami's first Monday night game since the 2011 season opener against New England. Hopefully this game won't go in the same way, as Brady scorched the Fins in that game.
The Saints have a guy who could do just the same. Drew Brees is not only one of the league's most affable personalities, but he's one of the league's most tremendous quarterbacks. With his head coach Sean Payton back in the saddle, look for the Saints offense to continue to astound.
New Orleans also made a few moves to improve its troublesome defense, most notably by signing Keenan Lewis at corner. However, the defense is far from fixed. And with the departure of offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod, Brees will require someone sturdy to protect his backside.
Still, for the issues surrounding New Orleans, they may still prove to be too much at home for the visiting Dolphins.
The Falcons were one of the hottest teams in 2012. Matt Ryan was untouchable, throwing for nearly 5,000 yards as he led Atlanta to the NFC Championship Game. They lost to the 49ers in a remarkable game, cutting short their Super Bowl run.
The Falcons are going to be hungrier than ever this year.
The upside to this game is that Miami gets Atlanta early in the season, where it's still possible to rebound from a loss. However, it's part of the brutal early-season stretch that I've mentioned a few times already. And this looks to be a very good Atlanta team. The offense should be even better with newly-acquired Stephen Jackson in the backfield.
This one could end up being a prove-it game for the Fins. Win this one and they'll turn a lot of heads.
In Week 2, we'll get a rematch of one of last year's big rookie quarterback duels: Andrew Luck vs. Ryan Tannehill.
Both quarterbacks performed very well in the first meeting, but Luck would come out on top in the end. With more substantial firepower this year, the story could be different for Tannehill.
Indy also added some offensive bricks, especially on the offensive line. Luck should be able spend more time on his feet in 2013 thanks to an improved front five. The handful of defensive signings are less proven, but the impression that the Colts improved their defense lingers.
This game is part two of a two-game road skid to start the season for Miami. It also marks the beginning of the pre-bye week gauntlet the Dolphins face. Winning this game will be tough, but it would also mean a lot for the young Dolphins.
For the Dolphins to prove they are ready to turn the corner and start competing, they must do so first in their division. That means knocking off the AFC East kings. The New England Patriots must fall.
Miami must be able to go into Gillette Stadium and find a way to knock off Brady and Belichick. If Tannehill is ever going to rise to the Mount Olympus-sized heights Miami is hopeful for, he needs to show that he and his weapons can best Brady and his.
The Dolphins must be unafraid of the big, bad Patriots and their dynasty. The Dolphins must be unmoved by New England's legacy. They must not roll over and be the Pats' punching bag again.
This will be the Dolphins' biggest test in 2013. The other games will show us how good the Dolphins are as a football team. This game will show us if the Dolphins are ready to take the next step.