The NFL season is a marathon, but for the teams that dig themselves a hole early in the year, it’s extremely tough to recover.
Since the NFL went to a 12-team playoff format in 1990, only 12 percent of teams that start 0-2 have made the postseason. That percentage is even smaller at 9.4 percent over the last nine years.
The odds aren’t much better for teams that start 1-3. Those squads have made the playoffs just 14 percent of the time since 1990. And when you take a look at the Miami Dolphins, their odds will be even lower having started this season 1-4.
However, a full recovery after a bad September is possible. Last season, two teams, Kansas City and Houston, both began 1-4 and made the playoffs. The Chiefs actually started 1-5 only to then reel off 10 straight victories to challenge the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos for the AFC West title on the last day of the regular season.
It’s tough to predict a 10-game winning streak, but the Miami Dolphins have all the makings of being the third team from the AFC in recent history to start 1-4 and still be playing in January.
The Dolphins’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers two weeks ago was naturally seen as a fluke, and no one can really blame them. It’s the kind of loss to an inferior team on the road that Pittsburgh has suffered from quite a bit over the last few years.
However, beating a division rival this past Sunday to win their second game in a row proves head coach Adam Gase might be on to something in Miami. What he’s on to is using his young running back Jay Ajayi.
In both games combined, Ajayi rushed for 418 yards, and incredibly, he reached the 200-yard mark both weeks. Last season, the NFL only had two backs run for over 200 yards in a single game, and the former fifth-rounder out of Boise State has now done it on back-to-back weeks.
With the help of a running game, there is no longer as much pressure on quarterback Ryan Tannehill. In the last two games, he hasn’t had to push the ball down the field and throw into double coverage in order to come back from a huge deficit. As a result, he didn’t throw an interception in the two victories. In the previous four games, Tannehill had seven picks.
This doesn’t necessarily mean Tannehill is a franchise quarterback. He’s only thrown for a little more than Ajayi has rushed for (456 yards) and just one touchdown in the last two weeks, but Gase is very wise to ask him to “manage” the game rather than relying on him to win games. The new running attack has allowed that to happen.
Miami is playing better on defense too. Part of it, again, returns to the running attack because with Ajayi carrying the ball nearly 30 times and racking up all those yards, the Dolphins have dominated time of possession. Miami has controlled the ball for over 36 minutes in each of the last two games.
But the Dolphins defense has looked much better on the field too, particularly in the secondary. Cornerback Bryon Maxwell suddenly looks like his Seattle-self again. He helped hold Antonio Brown to just four catches and 39 yards.
Against the Steelers and Bills, the Dolphins allowed an average of 184.5 passing yards and recorded six sacks.
It’s going to be tough without Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones for the rest of the season (he’s out with a torn rotator cuff). Without him early this season, who knows where this Dolphins secondary would be. He made 135 total tackles and intercepted five passes last year. In the first six games of 2016, he had 51 total tackles and an interception against Pittsburgh.
But the first test without him went well. Miami allowed just 6.3 yards per pass attempt and sacked Tyrod Taylor four times.
If the Dolphins keep playing like this, they could reel off a lot of wins in the second half of the year. Miami doesn’t play another team that currently has a winning record until Christmas Eve.
Already having four losses, the margin of error is slim, but it’s probably greater than in previous seasons. Only three teams in the AFC have five victories through seven weeks. Miami probably won’t catch New England, but a wild card berth at 9-7 is possible this year.
In order to make that a reality, the Dolphins must win three of their last four division games. Road victories against the Chargers and Ravens might be must-haves too because of tiebreaker scenarios. If Miami wins both of those games, the team could afford to lose at home to Arizona and still finish 10-6.
It’s an uphill battle, but it’s still possible.
Interestingly, the last time the Dolphins made the playoffs in 2008, they started 0-2. Don’t rule out the possibility of that history, and the precedent Kansas City and Houston set last year, repeating itself.