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The Road to the Playoffs

First of all, let me say that I'm not one of those Dolphin fans who feel that this season is a failure if the team doesn't make the playoffs.  Going from 1-15 to a potential .500 season makes this year a complete success.

With that said, making the playoffs would be amazing.  And despite last week's loss, I'm still dreaming of watching a Miami Dolphins game in the month of January.  It's been a long time and just getting in would be amazing.

Of course, last week's loss hurt Miami's playoff chances.  But it didn't end those hopes.  It just took away a couple of different avenues the Fins could have taken to get into the post-season.

So what's the most likely road to the playoffs for the Dolphins.  Let's break it down.

First, the current standings for those 2 AFC wildcard spots:

5. Colts (7-4)
6. Ravens (7-4)
7. Patriots (7-4)
8. Dolphins (6-5)
9. Bills (6-5)

Make no mistake about it - leapfrogging two teams, each possessing one more win than the Fins currently do is not going to be easy.  But it can be done.

The first step is this weekend.  The Dolphins have to win in St. Louis on Sunday.  Meanwhile, the other 4 teams' games look like this:

Colts @ Cleveland
Ravens @ Cincinnati
Patriots vs Steelers
Bills vs 49ers

Realistically, the only game I can honestly predict to play out in Miami's favor is up in New England, where we're all going to be pulling hard for the Steelers.  If the Steelers can win that game, and the other 3 teams battling for the playoffs win (with a Fins win, of course), the standings would look like the following:

5. Colts (8-4)
Remaining Games: vs Cin, vs Det, @ Jax, vs Ten
Comments: This is a very easy schedule for Indy now and I'd be shocked if the Colts didn't win at least 11 games.  They're getting hot and I think it's safe to say they will be the likely 5 seed in the AFC Playoffs.

6. Ravens (8-4)
Remaining Games: vs Was, vs Pit, @ Dal, vs Jax
Comments: Toughest of all the schedules.  But for the Dolphins to have a chance, the Ravens are going to have to go 1-3.  If they split these final 4 games, putting them at 10-6, then the Dolphins would have to win out to leapfrog them - and I just don't see that happening.
What the Dolphins need: Ravens go 1-3 and end season at 9-7.

7. Patriots (7-5)
Remaining Games: @ Sea, @ Oak, vs Ari, @ Buf
Comments: It's critical that the Steelers beat the Pats this week, especially when you look at New England's final 4 games.  Yes, they are on the road for 3 of them.  But let's be honest - it's  cake walk for NE.
What the Dolphins need: The Pats need to lose at least one of these games.  But a loss to the Cardinals (NE's best opponent remaining) wouldn't help the Dolphins if both teams end at 10-6.  Why?  Because if Miami's loss comes to a divisional opponent, then the Pats would win the tie-break over the Fins at 10-6.  So the Dolphins really need a loss by the Pats to the Bills in week 17, ending the season at 10-6.

8. Dolphins (7-5)
Remaining Games: @ Buf, vs SF, @ KC, @ NYJ
Comments: This isn't as soft a schedule as we all thought it might be.  The Chiefs and 49ers, though bad records, are showing some improvement.  The Chiefs, in particular, are scoring points on offense.  Both of those teams will be dangerous late in the year simply because many of those players will be playing for their jobs - always a huge motivator.

9. Bills (7-5)
Remaining Games: vs Mia, @ NYJ, @ Den, vs NE
Comments: Not an easy schedule for Buffalo - especially considering they are 0-3 in the division this year.
What the Dolphins need: A 2-2 performance out of the Bills in these final 4, with at least one of the losses obviously coming from a division opponent, seems fair - resulting in a 9-7 finish.

The Conclusion

Under the scenario painted above, the Dolphins would need to win at least 4 of their final 5 games - putting the Fin at 10-6 and tied with the Patriots.  But again, Pittsburgh really needs to beat the Pats up in New England this week for the above scenario to play out.

So if the Dolphins were to go 10-6 and tie with the Patriots, we'd have to go into the tie-breaking procedure:

Step 1: Head-to-Head - They split.  Onto step 2.
Step 2: Division Record - The scenario I draw out above would put the Pats at 3-3 in the division (if the Bills can knock them off).  The Dolphins, currently at 2-2, would have to split their last 2 division games (both on the road) to move onto the next tie break.  If they were to knock off both the Bills and Jets, they would win this tie-break.  But if the Pats were to beat the Bills, they'd have 4 division wins - meaning a loss by the Fins to either the Jets or Bills would give this tie-breaker to New England.  For arguments sakes, let's say the Bills knock off the Pats and the Dolphins one remaining loss comes from either the Jets or Bills.  Onto step 3.
Step 3: Common Games - This is the toughest to predict.  The Pats and Fins will play 8 non-division games against the same team.  If everything played out like above, the Pats would have a 7-1 record in those 8 games.  The Dolphins, if they knock off their non-division opponents remaining, would have a 7-1 record as well.  Onto step 4.
Step 4: Conference Record - Both teams are currently 5-4 in the AFC.  But if the Dolphins only lose 1 more game, and it's in the division, their AFC record would be 7-5.  Under my above scenario, however, the Patriots would be losing 2 more conference games (against the Steelers and Bills), dropping them to 6-6 within the conference and giving the Dolphins the playoff berth.

Whew.  You get all that?

Yes, I know there are a ton of "ifs" in all this.  The point, though, is that the Dolphins still have a shot - though it will be much tougher after last Sunday's loss.  They must take care of their own business and then hope the cards all fall into place.

Now my head hurts from all this.  Time to go relax.