Dolphins must overcome December struggles in order to reach playoffs

Sep 1, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase takes the field before a game against the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 1, 2016; Miami Gardens, FL, USA; Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase takes the field before a game against the Tennessee Titans at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

History shows us that the month of December has not been too kind to the Dolphins. However, if Miami is to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008 they must overcome their December woes.

After the first five weeks of the season and a 1-4 start, any chance at the playoffs looked like a pipe dream for the Miami Dolphins. But now after a six-game winning streak, the Dolphins find themselves in the 6th and final playoff spot as the standings lie. Miami has not made the playoffs since 2008, the last time they or any other team not named the New England Patriots won the AFC East. With five games remaining in the regular season the real test for the Dolphins lies ahead. This test is much about overcoming their struggles in the month of December as well as the quality of their opponents.

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It’s no secret that the Dolphins have struggled in December for the better part of this century. Since 2012, they are just 9-11 in the final month of play (8-11 if you want to be technical with last season’s victory over the Patriots on January 3rd).  It gets worse if you look back even further.

In 2013, the Dolphins were in the driver’s seat for the playoffs with an 8-6 record and riding a three-game winning streak going into the final two weeks of the season. All three of those wins, in fact, were in December and it seemed as though the December woes were finally over. Miami had to win just one of their final two games to clinch a playoff spot. The December curse came back to haunt the Dolphins, however, as they lost to the Bills and Jets by a combined score of 39-7.

The following season, Miami was again in the playoff hunt with a 7-5 record only to eventually lose three of their final four games, and miss out yet again. Fast forward to the present, and the Dolphins are in a similar position once again. The Dolphins may currently hold the final spot, but they are holding on by a thread and the margin for error is extremely thin.

There are some who believe that Miami can finish the season 3-2 and still reach the playoffs, but I’m pessimistic about the possibility. A record of 10-6 may have been good enough in seasons past, but the AFC West is a very strong division this year. There’s a strong chance they could have three teams finish above that. Even if they don’t, Miami would likely need to depend on a tie-breaker scenario at that point, and who knows how many other teams might finish with a similar record.

It will be tough, but the Dolphins likely have to go at least 4-1 down the stretch and it starts this week at Baltimore. Head coach Adam Gase has done a fantastic job with his one game at a time approach, but Miami will need to play better than they have the last two weeks in order to continue their success. Baltimore currently sits atop the AFC North, and would be Miami’s first round opponent by the current standings. The Dolphins need to approach this game as if it were a playoff game because a loss on Sunday virtually eliminates any realistic shot at the playoffs.

Next week, Miami plays host to the Arizona Cardinals. Currently with a record of 4-6-1, the Cardinals have drastically underperformed this year. Going into the season though the Cardinals were considered a Super Bowl contender. Guys like David Johnson and Larry Fitzgerald continue to have productive seasons, and the Dolphins are sure to have their hands full trying to contain those players.

The final three games of the season are all within the division. Before heading into the finale with New England, the Dolphins have a pair of road games against Buffalo and the New York Jets in Weeks 15 & 16. Despite defeating both the Bills and Jets earlier this season, the Dolphins have not had much success in recent years against either team. Counting the two wins earlier this season, Miami is a combined 5-9 against both the Bills and Jets since the 2013 season. It’s almost a guarantee that at this point in the season both games will be played in very cold weather conditions. Cold weather games have played a large part in Miami’s December struggles, and these games may very well be the biggest obstacles for the Dolphins to overcome. Their game against Baltimore isn’t exactly going to feel like Spring time either with the temperature expected to be around 50 degrees at kickoff.

We have to include the Dolphins home bout against the Patriots on this topic even though again, it’s not technically in December. Should Miami take care of business getting to this point, it will certainly be the most important game of the season and in recent history. In a best-case scenario, this game could even be for the division. A lot of analysts, however, don’t give the Dolphins much of a chance in this game. They believe that the only chance Miami has is if New England is locked into their playoff seeding with nothing to play for, and elect to rest some players.

While that would certainly help the Dolphins, they play the Patriots better than most people give them credit for. Just last season, Miami defeated New England in the regular season finale as a subpar team, which proved later to have an impact on the AFC Championship game. Instead of home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, the Patriots were forced to go on the road to Denver because of the loss to Miami. Things very well could have gone differently in that game had it been played in Gillette Stadium.

The truth is, the Dolphins have had better success against the Patriots than they have against either the Bills or the Jets in recent meetings. Not only has the home team won every game in this series since 2013, it should be pointed out that New England had something to play for in each of the Dolphins victories. The Patriots are a tough opponent for anyone, but the Dolphins play them tough even when they’re bad. If they can carry their momentum all the way up to Week 17, they have a realistic shot at winning on New Year’s Day.

Of course, if Miami doesn’t do what’s necessary in the coming weeks then their matchup with New England will be irrelevant by then. Every team likes to say that they take one game at a time, but we often see that this is not always the case. So far, Gase has done a great job getting his guys to do just that. The road ahead is a difficult one, but Miami has the players and finally the right coaching staff to get them out of mediocrity and back in contention. We’re not shouting Super Bowl just yet, but a playoff berth would suffice. Every game from here on out is winnable provided they don’t get overconfident.

Expectations were never high for Miami heading into the season, and were even lower after five weeks into the season. They’re in the hunt now, however, with their playoff hopes fully in their grasp. So will we finally see them overcome their December struggles or will they fall and crumble back into a spiral of mediocrity?