Defense wins championships, and in the case of the Miami Dolphins, hopefully it clinches playoff berths as well.
Much like a yo-yo, the Dolphins have been up and down all season long. After a 3-0 start, Miami dropped five of six games. But the Dolphins appear to be on their way back up after winning two of their last three.
With the playoffs within striking distance in a muddled AFC, the Dolphins will continue on their upward trend, separating themselves from the pack to claim the AFC's sixth seed and their first playoff berth since 2008.
A major reason why Miami will claim that sixth seed and get into the playoffs will be its defense.
The Dolphins entered the season expecting to have one of the league's top defenses, but it has only shown flashes of how good it can be.
The team ranks 14th in the league in total defense but is ninth in scoring, allowing 21.0 points per game, and Miami's tied for eighth in red-zone defense, letting up a touchdown just 48.8 percent of the time its opponents get inside the Dolphins' 20-yard line.
The secondary has been far better than expected, led by cornerback Brent Grimes, who has been the team's best offseason acquisition. The Dolphins' defense has only allowed one touchdown reception to opponents' wide receivers, fewest in the league.
Coyle on Brent Grimes' year so far: "He's played exceptional. He's done a really good job in coverage...He's something else, he really is."— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 2, 2013
The front seven, meanwhile, has struggled to stop the run. But they may have taken a step in the right direction the last two weeks, holding the Carolina Panthers and New York Jets to a combined 180 rushing yards. This is after allowing over 140 rushing yards in four straight games.
The defense as a whole is coming off its best performance of the season, holding the Jets to just three points on Sunday.
Jets managed just 177 total yards today; least allowed by the Dolphins this season.— Jesse Agler (@finsjesse) December 1, 2013
Led by Cameron Wake, Miami has been one of the league's best teams at rushing the passer the last few years. The team has continued that this year, ranking fifth in the league with 37 sacks. Wake is one of the league's best pass-rushers and finally has help on the line to take some pressure off him.
That help has come from Olivier Vernon. He has recorded 10.5 sacks so far this year and is coming off a three-sack game against the Jets that won him the AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Rookie Dion Jordan has also played well in his limited time on the field.
If the season ended today, the 6-6 Dolphins would find themselves on the outside looking in thanks to losing the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Baltimore Ravens.
But thankfully for Miami, the season doesn't end today. There are still four weeks left to make sure that tiebreaker doesn't come into play.
Which team will claim the AFC's sixth seed?
To do this, Miami will need to do something it hasn't done since September—win multiple games in a row.
The Dolphins start off this week traveling to Pittsburgh before hosting New England, visiting Buffalo and playing the Jets at home. These opponents have a combined record of 23-25, with the Patriots being the only team with a winning record.
Baltimore, on the other hand, has a much tougher schedule to close out the season. The Ravens play four opponents with a combined record of 27-20-1, three of which boast winning records. After a relatively easy game this week at home against Minnesota, the Ravens visit Detroit before hosting the Patriots and then visiting Cincinnati in the regular-season finale.
While the Miami offense has been bad for much of the year—averaging 21 points per game with a season-high total of just 27 in Week 3—the defense has been good enough to limit its opponents and win its share of games.
With the playoffs just around the corner, now is the time for the Dolphins' defense to turn into the vaunted unit it was expected to be before the season started.