The Miami Dolphins are playing meaningful December football right now, looking to work their way into the NFL Playoffs. With three games remaining on the schedule, Miami is on the outside-looking-in thanks to a head-to-head tie breaker loss with the Baltimore Ravens. What does Miami need to do to get into the postseason tournament for the first time since 2008?
The easy answer is win one more game over the last three weeks than the Ravens. That would put Miami into the sixth seed, and on to January football. However, there are more scenarios at play here than just that. Do you realize that, although extremely unlikely, Miami could actually win the AFC East still and claim the second overall seed in the playoffs?
Let’s take a look at the possible records for the Dolphins at the end of the season, and what that would mean for the Dolphins’ playoff chances.
If Miami were to finish the season 10-6, winning their last three games, the team could finish as the AFC East Champion and with the second seed in the AFC Playoffs. It’s not likely, but it could happen.
Currently, the New England Patriots have a 10-3 record and are three games ahead of Miami for that division title. However, Tom Brady just lost his top receiver when a low tackle tore the ACL and MCL in Rob Gronkowski’s knee. Add in two straight road games for the Patriots, starting this weekend in Miami, followed by a visit to the Ravens, before ending the season at home against the Buffalo Bills, and New England is facing a tough schedule. Will they actually go on a three game losing streak? Probably not. But could they? It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
If New England were to drop all three remaining game, while Miami wins all three games (vs Patriots, at Bills, vs Jets) on their slate, the two teams would be tied at 10-6. Having split the season series in this scenario, the division record tie-breaker would be used, with Miami coming out on top.
If, over this same span, the Cincinnati Bengals were to lose two of their three remaining contests (at Steelers, vs Vikings, vs Ravens) would have an identical 10-6 record with the Dolphins. Miami beat the Bengals this season, giving them the head-to-head tie-breaker, and putting Miami into the second seed, with a first round bye in the playoffs.
Like I said, it’s not likely – but it is possible.
Assuming the Patriots do not lose out this year, despite the loss of Gronkowsi for the season, Miami would be playing for the Wildcard position. If they were to win all three games, while the Ravens also won their three contests, Baltimore would still hold the tie-break advantage due to Miami’s Week 12 loss to the Ravens. However, if the Ravens are able to catch the Bengals in the AFC North, meaning Baltimore wins out while Cincinnati loses two of their final three, including a meeting with the Ravens in Week 17, the Dolphins would win a tie-breaker over Cincinnati for the Wildcard spot (Miami beat Cincinnati this season), and Baltimore would end up with the AFC North playoff spot.
The Dolphins could reach 9-7 this year with two wins over the next three weekends. Even if the Patriots were to completely collapse, they would only fall to 10-6, meaning Miami would have to rely on the Wildcard. We will also assume the currently 10-3 Kansas City Chiefs don’t completely collapse down-the-stretch, and end up with at least 11-wins, keeping them out of the reach of the Ravens and Dolphins and earning them the fifth seed. As we said before, the easiest route is to win one more game than the Baltimore Ravens. In this case, the Dolphins would have to win two games, while the Ravens lose two. Baltimore has a tough schedule down the stretch, with a game at the Detroit Lions, home against the Patriots, then hosting the Bengals to end the year, and two losses is very possible in those contests.
If Baltimore were to sweep their final three games, the Dolphins would need the Bengals to lose all three of their final games, which would bring them down to 9-7, and Miami has the head-to-head tie breaker over Cincinnati.
While winning one more game than the Ravens removes the head-to-head tie-breaker disadvantage that currently faces Miami, there is another way to solve that problem. If the Ravens, Dolphins, and Chargers all end up with identical records, the Dolphins will come out of the three way tie and claim the sixth seed in the playoffs. Because the Ravens and Chargers do not play this season, the head-to-head tie breaker cannot be used, which would give Miami the advantage thanks to a better conference winning percentage. With San Diego a game behind the Dolphins and Ravens, it would take a sweep of the final three games for the Chargers, and a loss from each of the other two franchises, or two losses from them and two wins from San Diego, to make the three-way tie a reality.
It’s not all that clear, however. If the Ravens and Dolphins open the door to a tie with the Chargers, they also open the door to a tie with the New York Jets. If the New York Jets join the tie, either as the team making it a three-way draw with Miami and Baltimore, or a four way tie with San Diego added in as well, NFL rules say division tie breakers must be used between Miami and the Jets to eliminate one of them before moving on to the multiple team tie. If Miami were to win the next two weeks, but then lose to the Jets in Week 17, New York would move into second place in the AFC East, eliminating the postseason for the Dolphins thanks to a better winning percentage in common games, then lose the tie breaker to the Ravens, having lost to them in Week 12, or losing in a three-way due to conference winning percentage.
If Miami can only win one of their final three games, making the team 8-8 on the season, the playoffs are not out of the picture, though it will take a lot of work. Weird things happen in the 8-8 tie scenario, because you are introducing teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans into the picture as well. If the Ravens, Dolphins, Jets, Titans, Steelers, and Chargers all finish 8-8, Miami wins the tie-breakers, thanks to the Steelers eliminating the Ravens based on common-games winning percentage, while the Dolphins eliminate the Jets due to head-to-head record (Miami win in Week 17. The Dolphins then beat the Titans, Steelers, and Chargers in conference games winning percentage.
If Miami does not win the Week 17 game against the Jets, New York will eliminate the Dolphins in this scenario, due to a better winning percentage in division games. In that case, the Titans come away with the playoff berth.
Basically, if Miami falls to 8-8, they have to win in Week 17 over the Jets, and they need the Steelers to move up to 8-8 and tie the collapsing Ravens.
The Dolphins cannot make the playoffs if they lose all three remaining games, because they would lose to the Jets in Week 17, which, even if the Jets were also 7-9 on the year, would eliminate the head-to-head advantage for Miami and turn to AFC East winning percentages, which the Jets would win.
Did you get all of that? Let’s try to recap:
If Miami finishes 10-6 (winning all three remaining games), they could win the AFC East and end up as the second seed, with a complete collapse from the Patriots. If the Patriots don’t collapse, the Dolphins either need the Ravens to lose one game, or the Bengals to lose two games.
If Miami finishes 9-7 (winning two of the three remaining games), they would need the Ravens to lose two games, or the Bengals to lose all three remaining contests. The Dolphins could also make the playoffs if the Ravens and Chargers also finish the season at 9-7, giving the Dolphins the three way tie-breaker.
If Miami finishes 8-8 (winning one of three remaining games), they would need the Ravens to lose all three games and end at 7-9. Baltimore could also end up at 8-8, as long as the Steelers win their last three games, forcing a tie between Baltimore and Pittsburgh, which Pittsburgh wins, but then Miami wins the tie breaker over the Steelers. The Dolphins one win in the 8-8 scenario would need to be the Week 17 game against the Jets.
If Miami finishes 7-9 (losing all three remaining games), they are looking forward to free agency in March and the Draft in May.
According to the website PlayoffStatus.com, the Dolphins have a 56% chance of claiming a berth in the playoffs. Breaking down the chances by seed, the Dolphins cannot claim the top spot, have a less than one-percent chance at the second seed, a one-percent chance for the third seed, and a less than one-percent chance for the fourth seed. They have a one-percent shot at the top Wildcard spot, the fifth seed in the tournament, and a 54-percent chance at landing the sixth, and final, playoff spot. According to their work, looking at remaining strength of schedule and tie breakers, Miami is by far the favorite to land that sixth spot, with the Ravens the closest challenger, with a 30% chance at the spot.
Three games is not much time left in the NFL schedule, but it is plenty of time for things to go really wrong, of course. Will Miami make it to the playoffs? Only the results over these three weeks will tell us for sure.
It also could lead to weird situations like rooting for the Patriots in Week 16 against the Ravens.