I want to emphasize some schedule projections I've been mulling over, and finally feel comfortable with. Only, instead of highlighting just the speed bumps and downhill portions of the Dolphins schedule, I want to talk about what I feel the other AFC contenders will be dealing with at each stop on the 2009 tour, as well.
I've broken the season into four chunks, and added a fifth page for post-season analysis (albeit, very basic projections, at this point).
So, break out your pen and mark your predictions down next to mine. Friendly bets anyone?
The Dolphins 2009 campaign is top heavy as far as difficulty goes, and then the level of competition gradually eases as the games mean more down the stretch.
The first five games (leading to the bye week) present opponents with a combined 47-33 record, last season. What's worse, is Miami's first four opponents all feature quarterbacks projected to have huge years.
They start in Atlanta, on Sunday, September 13th. Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan is coming off an Offensive Rookie of the Year campaign, and an offseason that brought top-tier tight end, Tony Gonzalez, out to northern Georgia.
This team should provide a quick test for Will and Jason Allen, Miami's two inconsistent corners prone to give up the big plays. The Falcons top two wide receivers, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, both, remarkably, averaged over 15.5 yards per catch in '08.
Miami's home opener is the next Monday night against the Colts. Peyton Manning (pictured) joined Brett Favre as the only three-time league MVP at the conclusion of last season, as his team rode a nine-game winning streak into an unfortunate buzz-saw waiting in San Diego for the Wild Card game.
Despite, Manning will look to utilize his team's depth at wide receiver to expose Miami's weaknesses in the defensive secondary. The plus for the 'Fins is Indianapolis' lack of size along the front-seven.
Look for many carries between Brown and Williams, as Sparano will try to pound the middle of Indy's oft-injured d-line, so to avoid the vicious ends in Raheem Brock and, Pro Bowler, Dwight Freeney. Their injuries were the downfall of the Colts, last year.
If the Dolphins can limit Manning's on-field time, and thus spoil any synchronicity he might be feeling with his receivers that day, then, yes, this is a winnable game. But, the problem is that Manning always gets his throws in. In four of the team's five losses last year, he threw more than 40 passes.
In week 3, the Dolphins take the always dreaded East to West coast plane flight, where they'll meet another division champion, the Chargers. Tight end Antonio Gates will be strong safety Yeremiah Bell's greatest challenge of the year.
The Dolphins strengths on offense play into the Chargers defensive specialties, as they welcome the return of All-World linebacker, Shawne Merriman, to what's already the 11th-ranked run defense in the NFL.
Look for Pennington to try and gut out his most productive game of the season to date, against the second-worst pass defense in the league.
Then, Miami comes home for in-division rivals, the Bills and Jets. Buffalo is sporting a two-headed receiving monster in Terrell Owens and Lee Evans. The team hasn't had this much pass support since the Andre Reed, James Lofton Super Bowl days.
The Fish do match up extremely well against the Jets, despite New York's vast additions to the defense with guys like Bart Scott and Lito Sheppard. The Achilles heel for the Jets is their lack of firepower at wide receiver, coupled with the fact they're throwing a fresh, rookie QB into the fire, asap.
The Dolphins come into this year strutting a top ten run defense (without Jason Taylor), and should be able to force that rookie QB, Mark Sanchez, to do more than just hand off to Thomas Jones and Leon Washington. Advantage Fish in this one, for sure.
However, those other four games present big challenges for Miami. I mean, really, the Dolphins have the talent, but the scouting reports just favor those opponents based on what each team does well.
The first five weeks for the Jets feature three non-playoff teams from '08. The Bills play four, and the Patriots get three. The only team in the conference that plays a tougher five-week schedule, by way of opponents' combined wins from '08, to start this year is Tennessee.
The Dolphins have their bye week unfortunately early, once again, in week five. Last year, it was in week four. Come on, NFL. We expect the tough schedule for our division supremacy, but mix up the scheduling of convenient bye dates, please.
After the bye (week 6), the Dolphins will take, what could very well be a sub-.500 record, and host the Saints with it.
New Orleans is a mess on defense, but Drew Brees and his, nearly record-setting, 5,069 yards would challenge even the stingiest secondary, much less Miami's, the league's 7th most generous.
Despite, New Orleans is in recovery mode on defense, and the Dolphins should control the tempo of the game with a sound ground and pound approach, especially given they'll be fresh after the off week.
Then the fun begins. Miami travels up to East Rutherford and Foxboro in the first two Sundays of November. We already broached the positive matchup potential against Gang Green, and thankfully the road trip is early enough to avoid the snowflakes.
But, the Patriot game should be another story.
The Dolphins were able to split with the Pats, last year. They lost a game where fill-in QB Matt Cassel went off with huge stats. They also won Cassel's second start, in a contest most notable for the Dolphins first, and most successful, attempts at resurrecting the Wildcat.
Well, now, Tom Brady will be back. Sure, teams will pressure his knee. But, the height of wide receiver Randy Moss (pictured), the size of incessantly improving tight end, Ben Watson, and the precise route-running of WR Wes Welker, will no doubt wreak havoc for everyone in the league, a la 2007.
The Dolphins didn't really have an answer for Cassel over the duration of five of the eight quarters they played against him, last year.
Now, not only do they get to face two-time Super Bowl MVP, Brady instead, but starting halfback, Sammy Morris, returns after being limited all last year with a knee injury. Only once was he conditioned enough to carry the ball more than twenty times, and that was in week seventeen.
New England's defense is adjusting to the loss of LILB Mike Vrabel, via trade to Kansas City. Jarrod Mayo is replacing him, and his rush defense will be immediately held up to a high standard. LOLB Pierre Woods is yet to really assert himself, too.
Look for all teams to run the ball hard to New England's weak side, trying to expose the left side of New England's front seven. Left end Ty Warren is coming off an injury-filled year, so there is really much vulnerability here which plays into Miami's physical, offensive game plan.
The deciding factor in the Patriot-Dolphin saga in '09, might very well be Miami's ability to stretch the field by any means necessary. In 2008, they did it with the Wildcat.
This may work again. But, remember, we are dealing with the "Mad Scientist", Bill Belichick. The Patriots secondary is extremely fast. Miami WRs Ted Ginn and Greg Camarillo typically look for bigger corners to shimmy, not guys who respect their juke, and play the deeper routes.
This puts a lot of pressure on Miami TEs Anthony Fasano and David Martin to attack a linebacking unit anchored by veterans Tedy Bruschi and Adalius Thomas.
That's a mighty task, but Fasano's second most prolific game of '08 came versus the Patriots. Notable is that both Thomas and Fasano missed the teams' second encounter with injuries.
An x-factor for the 'Fins could be the receiving productivity of third-string halfback, Patrick Cobbs. His second most productive game of '08 came in the Wild Card when he led the team in receiving yards.
Cobbs' speed to the flanks could test New England's oversized DEs and inexperienced OLBs, especially considering the WRs will probably be jetting down the hashes somewhere, with the Patriot corners sticking like glue.
There'll be lots of room for Cobbs to dash on a screen, riding the heels of Pro Bowl LT, Jake Long's, blocking.
These are the two most balanced teams in the AFC East, again. Expect some fireworks and good times if you're a football fan. One thing about the AFC East is you get to watch playoff-caliber teams do battle throughout the entire season.
At this point, I'm expecting the Dolphins to be hovering either at .500 or just over with five wins.
They finish their AFC East and NFC South games in this third quarter of the season.
On Sunday, November 15th, Miami hosts Tampa before having to travel to Charlotte for a game that coming Thursday night.
Let's face it, the Bucs are aging fast and their front office just hired a very inexperienced coach in Raheem Morris to try and formulate a very undisciplined roster.
The team's new quarterback is notorious, career underachiever, Byron Leftwich. Meanwhile, career Giants back-up, Derrick Ward, will handle the rushing duties.
Combine these factors with a who's-who of 4th and 5th round draft picks on the offensive line, and the Bucs may have the very worst offense in football. Sure, go ahead and quote me on that.
The Panthers offer more of a challenge with WR Steve Smith and HB DeAngelo Williams.
However, QB Jake Delhomme is slowing down with age, and the running game that worked so well with DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams together, lost half of its face value when Foster packed up to make his way over to 'Frisco this off-season.
A "losable" game?... Yes. But not one where the betters will shy away from Miami.
Then, the Dolphins end November in Buffalo, and start Christmas month at home versus the Pats.
And, so concludes their AFC East schedule. What do you see as their mark in division?... 3-3?... 4-2?
I'm going to leave you in suspense and give the Dolphins three wins versus the NFC South, and seven overall, with four games to play.
How many wins will it take to get into the playoffs this year?
Last year, eleven wasn't enough for the Patriots.
I tentatively set the Dolphins win total at seven, coming down the stretch of the final four games. I do believe they will win all of these remaining contests.
But, that's only eleven wins. Does that mean I'm projecting them to miss the playoffs? Well, as writers say, that's why we write the articles. Please read on...
The Dolphins are on the road December 13th and 20th to play Jacksonville and Tennessee, respectively. Jacksonville is the AFC South's resident cellar-dweller, and Tennessee matches up very poorly with Miami.
They (the Titans) tried to remedy the 27th ranked passing offense in the league by signing a back-up wide receiver from another team (Pittsburgh) in Nate Washington.
Despite the hooplah surrounding QB Kerry Collins' resurgence in 2008, he only tallied 12 touchdown passes throughout the year (he played at least three quarters in 14 games, so he averaged under one score a week).
Oh, and, by the way, Miami QB Chad Pennington won the Comeback Player of the Year Award over him.
So, Tennessee wins games with a three-headed running back committee of LenDale White, Chris Johnson and Chris Perry. Again, three physical running backs who will run right into the gut of one of the more coveted 3-4 linebacking cores in the NFL (Miami's).
You cannot beat the Dolphins without a strong semblance of a passing game and Tennessee does not field one.
Will the Dolphins be able to throw much on Tennessee? Probably not, but the key to winning prospective low scoring games is balance; not showing a deficiency anywhere.
The AP voters for that Comeback Player award chose Pennington over Collins for a reason. His offense's passing production ranked seventeen spots higher than Collins'. Balance.
By the way, this game will potentially have huge wild card implications.
Okay, let's move on to the mini home stand ending the season. The Fish host the steadily improving Texans, and then the defending Super Bowl champion, Steelers (pictured, above, on the prowl).
Simply put, Houston's offense is one of the league's best, reigning as the third most prolific in the league by way of yardage, and, their defense, one of the worst, at 22nd.
With QB Matt Schaub's inability to stay healthy over the duration of whole seasons, the Texans may regret shipping abled back-up Sage Rosenfels to passer-desperate Minnesota, especially considering they only got a 4th rounder in exchange.
The Texans are dangerous, and ended on a high last year, but I feel like the probability of both Scahub, and his best target, WR Andre Johnson, staying healthy until the end of the year is too improbable a feat to bank on (since it's never happened before).
I'm also unsure about whether feature back, Steve Slaton, has the frame at 5'9" and 201, to endure carrying the everyday load. However, he was under Offensive Rookie of the Year consideration in '08, despite only carrying the ball more than twenty times in a game on four occasions.
His back-up is over-the-hill journeyman, Chris Brown, whom the Titans found no room for after rookie Chris Johnson asserted himself to fill out the aforementioned three-headed running back committee they support.
Slaton shouldn't expect much help from Brown, and I project the increased load in '09 to be too much for him to shoulder basically by himself.
So, chiefly, the Texans have been boiled down to an oft-injured one-dimensional offense, backed by one of the league's worst defenses.
A December win in Miami is highly unlikely, but we'll see if Houston can finally develop some semblance of a defense, and better their eight wins from last year. It's possible. They are still moving in the right direction, but Miami is already where they need to be.
Now, the season finale, at home, versus the Steelers. I see this as a must win for Miami, and a chance to predominantly rest for the Steelers. Why?
Pittsburgh plays four other reigning division champions, and they'll host every one of them sans Miami. Their scheduled is flaked with very winnable encounters against the likes of Chicago, Cincinnati (x2), Detroit, Cleveland (x2), Denver, Kansas City, and Oakland.
Challenging games, on paper, for them entail meeting with Minnesota, Green Bay and Baltimore (whom they beat three times a year ago).
Then, being able to host their toughest opponents in Tennessee and San Diego (another team they routinely beat en route to the title, last season), gives the Steelers the AFC's most realistic shot at a fifteen win season.
I expect them to have the conference's top seed locked by the last Sunday of the regular season (1/3).
So, expect a tune-up for the Steelers in the first half of this one, followed by a mandatory Dolphin overload in the latter stages, to pull away, and clinch that golden eleventh victory.
Now, I'm by no means implying the Dolphins can't beat Pittsburgh at full strength. I believe the Steelers secondary is flawed and halfback Willie Parker's best days behind him.
What I did mean to imply is that the Steelers toughest outing is in week seventeen. I full-heartedly think it's plausible that the weakness of their schedule; with no Colts, Patriots or Giants to speak of, will go a long way toward them receiving an unpleasant wake up call in the Divisional round.
After further analysis of the schedules, personnel and strengths of those teams I've earmarked as contenders for the upcoming NFL season, I've selected the following eight teams as division favorites (asterisks denote expected bye in Wild Card round)...
New York Giants*, Minnesota Vikings, Atlanta Falcons*, Arizona Cardinals,
New England Patriots*, Pittsburgh Steelers*, Indianapolis Colts, San Diego Chargers.
Now, I am picking the Dolphins to attain the AFC's five-seed with an eleven win season.
I also expect Baltimore to get in with ten wins, despite some really difficult road games at San Diego, New England, Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Green Bay (in December). Odd is how the Steelers drew none of these road opponents.
What is my final hypothesis for Miami's fate?
I expect them to draw a Wild Card game against the fourth-seeded Chargers. This will be an exact rematch, setting and all, of the week three game.
With a staunch run defense (granted Shawne Merriman stays healthy), and a QB in Philip Rivers who craves the playoff games, I'm still looking at a very favorable matchup for the Chargers. I'm predicting the second straight Wild Card defeat for the Dolphins. -pause to wipe a tear-
I like Pittsburgh, behind home field advantage, to win the AFC, again, and defeat the Giants in the Super Bowl.
So, there you have it. Now, all we need is a few flips of the calendar, and we'll have pigskin.
Hopefully showing the shining Lombardi Trophy up here wasn't too much of a tease for anybody. My apologies.