There had been a MRSA outbreak across the Bucs locker room during the season, but many fans watching the game who had been observing the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation unfold on ESPN and NFL Network all week (as well as across the Internet) knew that MRSA was the second-most destructive clubhouse virus on display.
The previously winless Bucs defeated the Dolphins 22-19, as NFL officials and investigators began to descend upon the Dolphins locker room and facilities. Miami's season was pretty much over.
But then, a funny thing happened on South Beach: The Dolphins won their next game.
And then, after a loss to the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers, they won their next three decisions. With two weeks left before the postseason, the Dolphins hold sole possession of the sixth seed in the AFC playoff picture.
If the Baltimore Ravens lose on the road to the Detroit Lions Monday night, Miami will improbably control its own destiny over the last two weeks.
In their last three victories, the Dolphins embarrassed the New York Jets 23-3, holding New York to just 177 total yards while possessing the ball for nearly two-thirds of the game (38 minutes, 52 seconds).
The Fins offense then took center stage against the Pittsburgh Steelers the following week. As receiver Mike Wallace's former teammates and practice-field sparring partners blanketed him all game (just two catches for 19 yards in the contest), Miami still managed to put up 34 points while getting touchdowns from tight end Charles Clay, backup running back Daniel Thomas and secondary wideout Brian Hartline.
Many skeptics were still unconvinced, though, about the ability of Ryan Tannehill to get the job done with his arm and shoulder the load against an elite team.
Concerns over whether the second-year signal-caller was a long-term, legitimate starting quarterback in the NFL didn't get any quieter heading into Miami's home matchup against all-time great quarterback Tom Brady and his New England Patriots.
How did the most unsung member of the second-year standouts (no, Brandon Weeden does not count) respond?
Only with his second 300-yard passing game of the season (the Jets game being the other), as Tannehill hurled the pigskin for 308 yards and got Wallace involved early and often (six catches, 105 yards and a touchdown).
Most importantly, Tannehill (who was a wide receiver at Texas A&M before a move to QB and is still learning the position in a lot of ways) led a fourth-quarter drive down the field after a Brady touchdown pass to Julian Edelman put the AFC East division leaders ahead by a field goal with 4:07 to go.
There are two even more important things to take away from this game: The Dolphins have been winning despite the two twin beasts that plague multiple teams every year: injury and circumstance.
The Incognito-Martin fiasco was embarrassing for coach Joe Philbin and his players and staff. It was destructive and distracting from a game-planning and on-field-play perspective as well.
In addition, Miami lost offseason acquisition and preseason starting tight end Dustin Keller to a torn ACL before Week 1 got underway, and then lost downfield threat Brandon Gibson to a knee injury before the midseason mark.
The young Fins, however, have adopted the all-important "next man up" mantra, as these injuries paved the way for Clay and Rishard Matthews (who broke out with 11 catches and two touchdowns in that Bucs loss) to establish themselves as major factors in Miami's arsenal.
Oh, and what about Mike Thomas, the guy who picked off Brady in the end zone to end the game?
He was on the San Francisco 49ers practice squad just weeks ago before getting his first NFL start on Sunday. Somehow, for the Dolphins fans and those who have been following Miami throughout the year, this makes perfect sense.
The lion's share of the credit goes to Philbin for keeping this team focused amid all of the distractions and surrounding adversity. Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman (who coached Tannehill at Texas A&M) have been able to maximize the talent of their young quarterback (who has already nearly doubled his touchdown total from last year—12 to 23—and has dwarfed his passing yardage from 2012) and the surrounding pieces.
Also credit defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle for getting the most out of a defense that doesn't rank in the top half of the NFL in either the rush or the pass game, yet still has 23 takeaways and a positive turnover differential (plus-2) in 2013.
Although Baltimore beat Miami 26-23 earlier this year and would hold the tiebreaker between the two teams if both finish with the same record, the Dolphins get to close out their season with a trip to 5-9 Buffalo, and then another favorable matchup (at home) against "Gen" Smith (the lack of an "o" represents the lack of offense in East Rutherford) and the Jets.
Philbin has led the most impressive turnaround of any AFC team outside of the Kansas City Chiefs and not only is no longer on the hot seat, but also doesn't have to answer any more questions about whether he's lost control of the team and the locker room.
Now, he's being mentioned as a possible Coach of the Year candidate.
In fact, if the season ended today (assuming the Ravens lose on the road Monday night), the Dolphins would be playing at Cincinnati in the Wild Card Round. The last time these two teams met this season, this happened:
This team—which was once left for dead, belly-up somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico—is poised to make the postseason and could still possibly win the AFC East (if the Rob Gronkowski-less Patriots completely self-combust).
There are still many skeptics, to be sure, but NFL fans shouldn't be totally shocked if, come mid-January, AFC playoff teams will have to keep taking their talents into do-or-die games against the boys of South Beach.
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