The playoffs are in sight for the Miami Dolphins, and at 6-6, they have just as good a shot as anyone—and a better shot than several teams—of playing a football game or more in January.
Their margin for error, however, is exceedingly thin. The Dolphins' best chance starts with winning all of their remaining games (thank you, Captain Obvious), but they're not going to get there without a little help from their enemies.
At this point, the Dolphins are all but out of the race for the AFC East title. They would have no choice but to win every remaining game, and the New England Patriots (9-3) would have to lose every remaining game in order for the Dolphins to win the division. With the Denver Broncos (10-2) and Kansas City Chiefs (9-3) duking it out for the AFC West title, the top wild-card spot is all but sewn up.
The sixth seed in the AFC seems to be the only spot in the playoffs that's truly up for grabs, and it's a dogfight with six teams still in the hunt.
At present, the Dolphins are a half-game behind the Baltimore Ravens as a result of a narrow defeat in Week 5. They are also just one game ahead of the Tennessee Titans, the San Diego Chargers, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New York Jets, all sitting at 5-7.
|at Pittsburgh Steelers||5-7|
|vs. New England Patriots||9-3|
|at Buffalo Bills||4-8|
|vs. New York Jets||5-7|
|Record of remaining opponents||23-25|
The last four games for Miami are of prime importance, but the stakes are even higher when considering that three of the Dolphins' four remaining games are against AFC East opponents.
A win over the Steelers this week would likely knock Pittsburgh out of the playoff hunt entirely. Likewise, a win over the Chargers in Week 11 goes a long way in giving the Dolphins the edge in the playoff race. The Dolphins are one game up on the Chargers, but Miami holds the tie-breaker should the two teams finish with the same record.
The Dolphins must win at least one more game than the Ravens in order to edge them in the standings. That job is made a little easier with a remaining schedule for Miami that features just one opponent with a winning record. However, the Dolphins can't afford a loss, regardless of their opponent, and with three more games against division opponents, they really can't afford a loss.
|vs. Minnesota Vikings||3-8-1|
|at Detroit Lions||7-5|
|vs. New England Patriots||9-3|
|at Cincinnati Bengals||7-5|
|Record of remaining opponents||26-21-1|
The Ravens' schedule, however, is not easy. After facing the Vikings in Week 14, all three remaining games are against opponents with a winning record, and two of those three games are on the road.
Baltimore has two remaining games against the NFC North, but the Ravens have not beaten either of the NFC North opponents they've faced this year. It took the Ravens overtime to beat the Bengals at home, so their prospects for going into Cincinnati to pick up a win seem slim—although, to Baltimore's benefit, the Bengals may already be locked into their playoff spot with nothing left to play for come Week 17.
The Chargers get three of their last four games at home, but they face three talented teams in the Giants, Broncos and Chiefs. The remaining slate is not kind to the Titans, either, Their final stretch starts with a road trip to Denver to take on the Broncos, and then home to face the 7-5 Arizona Cardinals before some respite in the final two games of the season against the Jacksonville Jaguars (3-9) and Houston Texans (2-10).
So, as we speak, barring an unusual turn of events, the race for the sixth seed is down to its final two horses—the Ravens and Dolphins.
The path is not straight, but the objective is straightforward: win out the remaining four games to maximize the chances of making the playoffs.
The Steelers might like nothing more than to see the Ravens at home for the playoffs, but they aren't going to roll over for the sake of improving the Dolphins' playoff odds. They play much better at home (3-2, .600) than on the road (2-5, .286).
If the Dolphins want to win, they'll most likely have to put up 28 points or more—a feat they've yet to accomplish this season. The Steelers have scored 27 points or more in three of their past five games.
That being said, the Dolphins have only allowed 27 points or more twice this season. They were on the road both times they allowed more than that total, and the games were against Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. The only other time they faced a top quarterback in a road game was in Week 2, when they held Colts quarterback Andrew Luck and his offense to just 20 points.
The Dolphins defensive front will have to bring its A-game to help prevent quarterback Ben Roethlisberger from getting into a rhythm. He's been sacked just five times in the past four games, and has nine touchdowns against just one interception in that span.
Which AFC team will be the last one into the playoffs?
The Dolphins, however, know that their path is not as straightforward as it could be, and that there's no room for a slip-up.
"It's time to hit stride," said Dolphins wide receiver Mike Wallace, "no more warming up, no more of that, it's time to go. It's the perfect time for it, get the kinks out of the way early but it's December, it's time to make a playoff run, got to make plays now. We don't have time to wait."
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.