Miami Dolphins: What You Need to Know Heading into Week 16
The Miami Dolphins stand in a place that's unfamiliar to them: controlling their own destiny in the race for the AFC playoffs.
You'd have to go back to 2008 for the last time Miami found itself in that position. That Dolphins team was 10-5 going into its final game of the season and had one mission—win and they were in.
This year, the Dolphins are 8-6 and find themselves needing to win their final two games to get to the playoffs.
Last week, the Patriots were the most important game of the season for the Dolphins. That title now belongs to Miami's Week 16 contest against the Buffalo Bills.
What do we know about the Dolphins going into their next contest, and what do we need to know about the Dolphins thus far?
Here's a complete look at a Miami team that can taste the playoffs, but one that still needs to finish strong in order to get in.
Running Game More Effective in Recent Weeks
Early in the season, the Dolphins ran the ball about as well as I did math in high school.
That is to say, not very well.
In their first nine games of the season, the Dolphins rushed for an average of 87 yards per game. In that stretch, there were some good rushing performances like a 156-yard game in Week 8 against New England and a 157-yard performance against the Cincinnati Bengals the following week. However, the Dolphins' running game also had a 20-yard day against Cleveland in Week 1, a 22-yard game against Baltimore in Week 5, and then the worst of the worst, a two-yard game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 10.
Since then, Miami's running game has turned it around, averaging 110.2 yards per game in the last five games.
Not coincidentally, Miami has gone 4-1 during that stretch. The Dolphins' lone loss during that time came against the Carolina Panthers, who only allowed Miami to rush for 52 yards.
When Miami is running the ball well, success tends to follow. Of their eight victories this season, five came when Miami ran for more than 100 yards.
The Dolphins have only lost three times when reaching or eclipsing 100 yards rushing—and one of those losses came to their next opponent, Buffalo. Even against the Bills, however, the Dolphins lost in part due to their abandonment of the running game in the fourth quarter, when they only ran for four yards on three attempts despite holding the lead for much of the final period.
Hopefully, that can be corrected in the play-calling should the Dolphins be in the same situation Sunday in Buffalo. If it is, Miami should get the victory.
Secondary One of the Best Despite Dealing with Injuries
The secondary was one of Miami's weakest points in 2012, and a big reason for their 7-9 record.
In 2013 it's now one of the strongest points of the team, and a big reason why the Dolphins are knocking on the door of a playoff berth.
Miami's secondary is responsible for 15 of the 17 passes that the Dolphins have picked off this season, with Brent Grimes and Dimitri Patterson tied for the Dolphins' lead in interceptions with four apiece.
As a unit, Miami's corners and safeties have been responsible for 51 defended passes and have only allowed five touchdowns to a wide receiver all season.
You could even make the argument that three of those touchdowns were the fault of the linebackers since they came off of underneath passes or screens.
Not only has Miami's secondary been scary-effective, they've done it while being held together by scotch tape, mirrors and cornerback Brent Grimes.
Dimitri Patterson is out for the season due to a lingering groin injury, being placed on IR last week, per by David J. Neal of The Miami Herald. Nolan Carroll has been effective for the Dolphins in Patterson's place when he has started for him, but he was knocked out of the win over New England with a late knee injury, according to Rotoworld.
Even with Grimes leaving that game with cramps, the secondary still got a key red-zone stop in the final seconds against a Tom Brady-led offense.
If that isn't impressive, I don't know what is.
According to Andrew Abramson of The Palm Beach Post, Grimes should be good to go against Buffalo on Sunday.
Charles Clay: Pro Bowler?
Charles Clay received the ultimate level of respect from Bill Belichick on Sunday, as the Patriots coach designed a defensive game plan that was designed to minimize any damage Clay might do.
It was effective for New England, as Clay was held to only one catch for six yards.
However, it did hurt New England in that Clay's one catch for six yards came on 4th-and-5 late in the fourth quarter, helping to set up the Ryan Tannehill-to-Marcus Thigpen 14-yard touchdown later in the drive that wound up winning the game.
The fact that the Patriots felt the need to game-plan against Clay goes to show you how much of an effect he has had on the Dolphins this season. Clay has 61 receptions for 684 yards and six touchdowns, which tops the team for scoring receptions while he is tied for seventh among tight ends in the league.
Clay should make the Pro Bowl, but unfortunately for him, the NFL is filled with talented tight ends who will overshadow him in the new balloting system. However, if the Pro Bowl were still the NFC vs. AFC this season, it's likely that Clay would be a shoo-in.
Mike Wallace Is Having a Very Good Season for the Dolphins
Mike Wallace had a predictably slow start to his career as a Miami Dolphin. His drops and lack of communication with quarterback Ryan Tannehill had been a major source of frustration for many Dolphins fans.
If this is what Wallace looks like when his timing is off and he's having a problem with drops then I can't wait to see what he does when his timing with Tannehill is on point and he's able to hold onto the football.
Wallace is only 133 yards away from a 1,000-yard season in receptions. It would be only his third season of 1,000 yards or more in his career. He's already matched his reception totals from last season when he was with the Steelers as well.
The only number that still concerns me are the mere four touchdowns, although three of them have come in Miami's last four games, and three of those games marked Wallace's best efforts with the Dolphins.
Things are starting to click for Wallace at just the right time. It isn't correct to call him a free-agent bust at this point. We've seen not only what he can do when he gets the ball, but also the impact he has had on the rest of Miami's receivers.
Brian Hartline is having another prolific year and leads the Dolphins in receptions, while both Brandon Gibson and Rishard Matthews have shined when they've had the opportunity.
We already mentioned Charles Clay's success.
A lot of that has to do with the respect given to Wallace and the skills he brings to the field. Unfortunately, it took the Dolphins almost three quarters of the season to figure out how to use him, but since then, he has been a menace to the opposition.
Ryan Tannehill NFL's Most-Improved Second-Year Quarterback
Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman had this to say about Ryan Tannehill back in July, courtesy of James Walker of ESPN.com:
I think his personality comes out even more, I think his leadership comes out even more. The character of the person comes out even more. I think the players see more of him. When we started a year ago, Ryan was not the starter. Now he comes into camp as the designated starter.
With that comes huge responsibility and big shoes, and he’s wearing them quite well, and I think he has a lot of respect from his teammates.
How much of Sherman's statement about Tannehill from has come true?
Tannehill is responsible for Miami being 8-6 and has performed at a high level this season, having completed 62.4 percent of his passes for 3,627 yards, 23 touchdowns and 14 interceptions with a passer rating of 86.6.
Tannehill is ranked 10th in yards, tied for ninth in touchdown passes and is ahead of Andrew Luck in the quarterback ratings.
He's been the AFC's most improved second-year quarterback, and it might even be time to open up a debate between him and Russell Wilson as to who is the second-best of the second-year quarterbacks. I give the nod to Tannehill because the Seahawks would still be the Seahawks with Tannehill at quarterback, whereas I'm not sure how good the Dolphins would be with Wilson behind center in Miami.
Is it still too early to call Tannehill elite? Probably, but he's on his way there.
The Martin-Incognito Saga Is Practically over and Didn't Become a Distraction
You know what we haven't heard much about lately? The Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito saga.
That's because while not officially over until Ted Wells releases his findings, it's practically over.
Let's start with Wells' investigation, which Jeff Darlington of NFL.com reported last week has come to an end. All that's being awaited is the final report.
ESPN reports that Incognito will remain suspended with pay for the rest of the season and likely won't be back on the Dolphins in 2014 since he is an impending free agent.
As for Martin, the Dolphins will attempt to trade him during the offseason per Yahoo! Sports. Martin also may have provided one possible factor as to why the investigation ended and further meetings were cancelled. He reportedly refused to turn over text messages to Wells and refused to meet with an independent NFLPA investigator, per Courtney Fallon of WTVJ in Miami.
No matter how it ends this offseason, it's already over for the Dolphins this season. Miami's offensive line has improved ever since Martin took his leave of absence back in October.
As their offensive line has improved, so have the Dolphins, who were 3-4 prior to the scandal being revealed and have gone 5-2 since.
The Dolphins Can Still Win the AFC East
We know that the Dolphins control their own destiny in terms of the playoffs, but there's still one goal within reach—with a little help, of course.
The Dolphins could still win the AFC East and possibly even gain the second or third playoff seed in the AFC.
Here's how that could happen. If Miami wins its next two (which gets it into the playoffs), then it can win the AFC East if the New England Patriots lose their final two games to the Baltimore Ravens and Buffalo Bills.
That would not only win the division, but also get Miami the third seed, thanks to holding the tiebreaker over the Indianapolis Colts.
To earn the second seed, Miami would need for that scenario to play out, plus the Bengals have to lose to Minnesota in Week 16 and then beat the Ravens in Week 17.
That would give Miami the second seed due to the Dolphins having a tiebreaker over the Bengals.
Is it pie-in-the-sky fantasy? Yes. While it's entirely feasible, and almost expected that the Patriots may lose to the Ravens, the Patriots losing to the Bills in New England is improbable.
But while improbable, it's not impossible.
In the end, Miami doesn't have to worry about what other teams do because as long as it wins its next two games, it's in the postseason.
Once you're in, anything can happen.
Statistics provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com and ESPN.com.