The NFL regular season is a long one. In 18 weeks, each team will play 17 games across five months, from September to January. Then, the postseason begins. It's not absurd to say each of the 17 yearly games matters the same to every team, but every team has a stretch of their schedule that they are circling. The stretch that will make or break a team. The stretch of divisional and conference opponents that will determine the raw talent of the team.
That stretch for the Miami Dolphins spans from week 15 to week 18 -- the final four games of the regular season. Finishing up the regular season on a strong note is absolutely vital to sustained postseason success. Teams that enter the postseason hot usually stay hot; The teams that come in on a losing streak usually don't last long. Here is the most important stretch of the Miami Dolphins 2023 season:
Week 15: vs New York Jets (December 17)
At this point, so late in the season, we all hope the Dolphins are vying for first place in the AFC East. One of the contenders standing in Miami's way is Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets. This December matchup will be less than a month removed from their first meeting in New York (New Jersey, really) on Black Friday.
There's a good chance both these teams, along with the Buffalo Bills, have similar records and are all in contention to win the division or make the playoffs as a wildcard contender. This game is even more pivotal for Miami, as they're coming off a short week after hosting Derrick Henry, DeAndre Hopkins and the Tennessee Titans the previous Monday night.
The Jets will have some fresh tape on Miami from their previous meeting only three weeks prior. Aaron Rodgers is still a real threat at his age, especially with Garrett Wilson, Breece Hall, and former teammates Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb serving as his weapons. Dropping this game to the Jets could be a destructive loss, as the rest of their remaining schedule does not get easier.
Week 16: vs Dallas Cowboys (December 24)
The Dallas Cowboys are always a good, even great, team. Even though Dallas seems to be an early playoff exit every year, "America's Team" is admittedly lethal in the regular season -- especially in December. Over the past three seasons, the Dallas Cowboys are 11-2 in the month of December. Coming off a potential loss to the Jets in week 15, the Dolphins could be facing a must-win.
Dallas is headlined by quarterback Dak Prescott, whose weapons include Ceedee Lamb, Michael Gallup and newly-acquired Brandin Cooks. The offensive line, notoriously elite, consistently opens running holes for emerging star running back Tony Pollard. Dallas is no slouch on defense either, spearheaded by the best defensive player in the league Micah Parsons and ballhawk corner Trevon Diggs.
The Dolphins will have their hands full in only the second game in this murderer's row of matchups if they want to win the division. The Cowboys present a real litmus test for Miami and will either be the victim of a statement win for the Dolphins -- or the team that makes winning the AFC East that much harder for Miami.
Week 17: at Baltimore Ravens (December 31)
When you think of the Baltimore Ravens, two words come to mind: Lamar Jackson.
The premier dual-threat quarterback in all of football, the former Heisman and NFL MVP presents a dangerous threat to Miami. We saw it last season in week two, as the Ravens poured it on Miami for three straight quarters behind Jackson's 318 passing yards, 3 passing TD's to go along with the quarterback's 119 rushing yards and 1 rushing TD. As we all know and remember, Miami came back to win the game in one of the most insane comeback wins of all time.
However, the Ravens are still a legitimate contender in the AFC and Baltimore itself will be looking to stay hot heading into the postseason. After re-signing Jackson in the offseason and adding WR Odell Beckham Jr., the Ravens have Super Bowl aspirations this season. Aside from their high-powered offense, Baltimore boasts a mean defense, featuring the likes of Marlon Humphrey, Marcus Williams (who picked off Tua twice in their 2022 matchup) and star linebacker Roquan Smith.
The Dolphins are looking at a possible playoff opponent in the Ravens and must treat this game like it is a playoff game, because losing big games this late in the season could spell disaster for a team looking for a home playoff game in a loaded division.
Week 18: vs Buffalo Bills (January 7)
We all know who they are. It's week 18. It's the Buffalo Bills. It may be for the AFC East crown. It's big time football.
If all goes according to plan, this could be the final battle for the top spot, and a home playoff game, of the AFC East. Three months after their first matchup of the season on October 1 in Buffalo, the Dolphins and Bills will meet for the last regular season game. You don't need me to tell you about Josh Allen or Stefon Diggs. You don't need to know the dominance Buffalo has displayed in the AFC East as of late.
You just need to know this, regardless of circumstances, is a must-win game for the Miami Dolphins. A huge win in a divisional rivalry game one week before the postseason starts is a perfect way for Miami to enter the postseason hot and ready for a deep playoff run. Think of it this way -- the playoffs start in week 15 for Miami. Every one of these games, especially week 18, should be treated and played like it's a playoff game. All of these opponents will likely be postseason teams, so the Dolphins have the unique opportunity to get in playoff shape four weeks before the postseason even begins.
If the Dolphins drop over two of these games, their divisional championship dreams are essentially dashed and they will need to fight for a wildcard spot. However, if the Dolphins win more than two of these games, the likelihood of winning the division is high and Miami could be prepared for a deep playoff run. This stretch of the season will determine how good the Dolphins are, how great of a coach Mike McDaniel is, and if Tua Tagovailoa is this team's franchise quarterback.
A lot is riding on this stretch of four games.