Wild Card Competition: Analysis of Other Wild Card Hopefuls and Miami’s Chances
If the Miami Dolphins exit their bye week as the gritty football team we all saw in Weeks 6 and 7, then we may end up seeing Miami football in January for the first time in over 5 years. Obviously, the team has no hope of unseating the 7-1 New England Patriots for the AFC East division crown, but they are in the hunt for a Wild Card spot in the 2017 NFL playoffs. However, the AFC is wide open this year, as the retirement of Peyton Manning and the injury to Ben Roethlisberger have left huge question marks on perennial contenders, and we have yet to see who will fill the power vacuum. As of right now, the AFC playoff picture has the New England Patriots as the clear number 1 seed, with the Oakland Raiders, Houston Texans and Pittsburgh Steelers leading their respective divisions. The 6-2 Denver Broncos are in position for the number 5 seed and figure to contend with the 6-2 Oakland Raiders for the AFC West crown. The Dolphins and the other organizations in the hunt will likely be battling for the number 6 seed for the rest of the season. In the AFC there are currently just 8 teams other than the Dolphins that are vying for the 6th and final playoff spot , as the Jacksonville Jaguars and Cleveland Browns are essentially eliminated from contention anyway.
New York Jets (3-5)
The New York Jets are not a good football team. Though Matt Forte is singlehandedly keeping the Jets afloat, it is impossible to mask the team deficiencies created by poor free agent signings (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Darrelle Revis) and unfortunate injuries (Eric Decker). Though the New York Jets are coming off of two consecutive wins, neither phase of their game is particularly threatening. Their best offensive player is an injury-prone 30 year old running back, their formerly elite cornerback has been getting picked on in coverage all year, and the team has done little to bolster the roster in the draft. Assuming the Dolphins do not take a sizable step back against the Jets this week, Miami should have no problem staying ahead of the Jets in the hunt for the 6th Wild Card spot. After all, playoff teams do not bench their starting quarterbacks in favor of Geno Smith.
San Diego Chargers (3-5)
The San Diego Chargers have been a great football team all year, and could feasibly be 6-2 or 7-1. However, they have been a team cursed by misfortune like none I’ve ever seen throughout the season. After losing arguably 3 of their top 5 players to injury in Keenan Allen, Danny Woodhead and Jason Verrett, the Chargers have been the most impressive 3-5 team in NFL history. It would undoubtedly be a misnomer to assume that their record is indicative of their ability as a team. They have been extremely competitive in every game, as Philip Rivers has willed them to perform better than the sum of their parts. The Chargers’ defense is nothing to marvel at, but it has done enough to allow Philip Rivers and his offense to seriously harass their opponents. Rivers, completely lacking any semblance of a number 1 receiver after losing Keenan Allen, has managed to pilot his offense to the tune of 28.1 points per game, behind only the Atlanta Falcons and the New Orleans Saints. The Dolphins’ Week 10 game against the Chargers may actually be the 2nd most difficult game on their schedule, and it is not difficult to see its importance considering the gravity the matchup may hold if the Wild Card spot is up for grabs based on head-to-head record.
Baltimore Ravens (3-4)
The Baltimore Ravens started off 3-0, but have been winless in October to drop four straight. However, the Ravens still boast one of the league’s best defenses (4th in yards per game and 9th in points per game), and their offense is due for a jump-start once Steve Smith returns from injury. While the offense has been below average all season, Joe Flacco’s aerial attack still has the potential to go off on any given Sunday. The Dolphins can prove that they belong in the Wild Card conversation if they escape Baltimore with a victory in Week 13.
Buffalo Bills (4-4)
Miami’s victory over Buffalo was impressive, as they had no issue containing an injured Shady McCoy to 11 yards on the ground. However, the Dolphins still play the Bills one last time in Week 16, which has the potential to be the deciding factor for a Wild Card spot. Unfortunately, Week 16’s iteration of the Buffalo Bills could be vastly different than the one that the Miami Dolphins faced in Week 7. LeSean McCoy should be at full strength and the possibility remains that Sammy Watkins will be back from IR healthy and well rested. If the Dolphins can manage an unprecedented sweep of the Bills this season, their chances of a playoff berth are increased on both the basis of division record and head-to-head record.
Cincinnati Bengals (3-4-1)
After finding their way to the playoffs in every season since Andy Dalton was drafted in 2011, the Bengals are in serious danger of being absent in January. The Bengals haven’t been as capable with their numerous coaching losses like Hue Jackson and Vance Joseph, but they still have a balanced team that is capable enough to beat down on lesser competition while remaining competitive with better teams. The Dolphins’ early loss to the Bengals definitely hurts the Dolphins’ chances, as Andy Dalton and company should keep their team in the thick of the playoff hunt until the season ends.
Indianapolis Colts (3-5)
The Indianapolis Colts are one of the worst football teams in the NFL. However, Andrew Luck has been a top-5 quarterback throughout the season as he has single-handedly willed his team to three victories. The Colts’ offensive line has allowed the most sacks in the league, the defense is ranked 28th and 29th in points and yards allowed respectively, and they have had one 100-yard rusher in the last 4 years. As of now, Andrew Luck is the only thing keeping this team afloat, and the Miami Dolphins are objectively better in nearly all aspects outside of the quarterback position.
Tennessee Titans (4-4)
The Titans have stayed relevant this season on the back of their 3rd ranked running game and their 10th ranked defense (in yards per game). Their passing attack is well below average, but the Titans certainly warrant credit for sticking to the run game to punish opponents at the line of scrimmage. Demarco Murray and Derrick Henry have been godsends for Mike Mularkey and his offense, as he has no problem handing the ball off 40 times if that’s what is working. The Titans don’t have a great chance of making the playoffs, but their victory over the Dolphins in Week 5 does give them the benefit of head-to-head record in the event of a tie for the 6th spot.
Kansas City Chiefs (5-2)
At 5-2 the Kansas City Chiefs are in control of their own destiny, as they are currently slotted in the final playoff spot. Their offense has maintained balance, even without Jamaal Charles, while their defense has managed to keep opposing offenses to just 19.6 points per game (8th in the league) without very much of a pass rush. The only thing they have going against them is their remaining schedule. The Chiefs have the misfortune of playing in the same division as the Denver Broncos, Oakland Raiders, and San Diego Chargers. The Chiefs definitely will have to continue their strong level of play to build upon their 2-0 division record.
As you can see, the Dolphins have a lot of competition for the AFC’s final playoff spot. While a lot can and will happen over the next nine weeks, it seems fairly unlikely that the Dolphins will remain above all eight of these other AFC teams in the playoff hunt. The Bengals, Chiefs and Chargers in particular will be especially difficult to unseat. All that the Dolphins can do is build on their pre-bye week momentum and allow the herd to thin out. The Dolphins’ games against the Jets, Bills, Chargers and Ravens will be instrumental in determining their playoff viability, as Miami needs to secure victories against other Wild Card hopefuls to better their chances. After their losses to the Bengals and Titans, not to mention their 3-4 overall record, the Dolphins are certainly in for an uphill battle. However, the pressure of a close playoff race could finally forge the team we’ve been waiting for. Or, the team could fold under the pressure as it has done in years passed. Hopefully Adam Gase is the catalyst that the Dolphins have been searching for in the race to postseason relevance.