The Dolphins are officially in the playoffs, completing a stunning turnaround from their 1-4 start and ending the franchise’s eight-year postseason drought.
Miami was in position to finish this itself after improving to 10-5 with a Christmas Eve win at Buffalo, but that’s no longer necessary with the Chiefs beating Denver 33-10 tonight. Other than an outside chance at climbing to the fifth seed, the Dolphins’ playoff race is over with a week left in the regular season and they’ll be in regardless of what happens in Sunday’s home game against the Patriots.
Miami will open the postseason Jan. 7 or 8 at Pittsburgh or Houston. Those teams are guaranteed a home game in the first round by virtue of winning their divisions despite neither having a better record than the Dolphins. The Steelers are the more likely opponent of the two.
When Pittsburgh and Miami met in October, the Dolphins jumpstarted their season with a stunning 30-15 win led by Jay Ajayi’s 204-yard rushing performance. The qualifier, however, is that Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was limited by a knee injury.
Pittsburgh (10-5) is one of the hottest teams in the NFL now and extended its winning streak to six games by rallying to beat Baltimore 31-27 today. During that run, running back Le’Veon Bell has averaged 139.2 yards per game and totaled six rushing touchdowns.
The Dolphins haven’t faced Houston (9-6) this year, but would have good reason to be confident in that matchup. The Texans are 4-6 outside of the dismal AFC South.
Miami’s entry cemented the six-team AFC playoff field, though some positioning remains undetermined. New England clinched a first-round bye, and the other bye will go to Kansas City or Oakland depending on their games in the final weekend.
The Dolphins can move up to fifth if they beat the Patriots and catch a break with Kansas City losing at San Diego. Given that New England is still playing for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs, the Patriots likely will be favored. The Chiefs certainly will be the favorite against the five-win Chargers.
The Patriots and Dolphins would be on course for each other in the playoffs if they finish first and sixth, respectively. Since the NFL reseeds after the Wild Card games, a sixth seed that advances automatically faces the No. 1 team in its conference in the divisional round.
Details aside, the playoff berth is a landmark achievement for the franchise and rookie head coach Adam Gase. Miami went 6-10 last year and hasn’t posted a winning season since going 11-5 in 2008.
It will be the first playoff game for all but 11 players on the roster. Cameron Wake has waited since his arrival in 2009, and quarterback Matt Moore is in his sixth year of that quest with the Dolphins.
The ’08 team won the division after Tom Brady went down with a season-ending injury and got blasted in the first round by Baltimore. The Dolphins haven’t won a playoff game since beating the Colts in 2000.
Extending the season also increases the chance of Ryan Tannehill making it back. He has been out since spraining the MCL and ACL in his left knee Dec. 11, leaving Moore in charge the last three games and almost certainly against the Patriots.
The Dolphins have not ruled out a Tannehill return and have held off ending his season by placing him on Injured Reserve. He said a week ago he still believes he might play this season and has progressed slightly toward that goal. The hard cast on his left leg has been removed, and Tannehill was walking without crutches at Saturday’s game against Buffalo. The first playoff game would be nearly a month after the injury took place.
Moore’s been solid in his place. He led Miami on the game-winning drive in the Arizona game, then threw for 469 yards and six touchdowns against one interception for a 113.6 passer rating in victories over the Jets and Bills.
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