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How the AFC East will be won: A recipe for the Miami Dolphins

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So I go away for a day or two and all hell breaks loose, huh? Of course, credit Mosul_DolFan and LeftCoastFinFan for keeping this place up to date. And a big thanks to all of you for commenting and writing posts of your own. Reading over many of those posts and comments really helped me get a feel for everything going through the heads of other Dolphin fans as we approach the kickoff of the 2010 season.

To be quite frank, I'll admit that I agree with one of the Dolphins' beat writers (I forget exactly which one it was, though I believe it was Omar Kelly) who said that this is the first time under this current regime that I feel like there are more questions now than there were entering training camp. Suddenly we all are wondering about the depth of the Dolphins' offensive and defensive lines (as well as the health of LT Jake Long) and the struggles of the secondary highlighted by the (hopefully temporary) demotion of cornerback Sean Smith to go along with the questions we had heading into camp that remain unanswered - such as the ability to pressure the opposing quarterback, for example.

But all of those questions aside, I'm not going to beat around the bush here. Anything less than a playoff appearance - in my honest opinion, will be considered a failure for this team. This is year three for Tony Sparano and company and it's now time to start competing for a championship. I'm not saying a Super Bowl is a must this season. But a playoff appearance is.

The most direct route into the playoffs, of course, is by winning the division. And that will be goal #1 of 2010 - quiet the "experts" who are all lining up and picking the Jets or Patriots. To accomplish this feat, though, the Dolphins will probably have to follow the recipe below.

Start strong
It's been well discussed that the Dolphins have a very tough schedule in the first half of the season. Six of their first eight games are against playoff teams for a year ago. Three of those games are against their division rivals. Two of those are at home and in prime time with a national television audience. The Dolphins can't afford to get off to the slow starts they have gotten off to in each of the two previous seasons under Tony Sparano. In 2008, the Dolphins were able to overcome their slow start thanks to a very soft schedule and the introduction of the Wildcat formation. But their slow start (and rough finish) buried their playoff chances last year. They fought valiantly and had a shot. Still, the hole was too tough to climb out of.

The Dolphins could easily bury themselves this year if they aren't careful. And if they seriously want to contend for the division, then they have to split their two games against both the Jets and Pats. The Dolphins get to host both of those teams before they ever have to travel north to the Meadowlands or to Foxborough. Those two, more than any other games, are must wins. If the Dolphins can come out of those first eight no worse than 4-4 (with wins against all three division opponents), they would be sitting in very decent shape. Anything worse could be a disaster.

Improve their turnover margin
In 2008, the Dolphins were the improbable division champions. Yes, a soft schedule and "gimmick" formation helped get the Dolphins to that division crown. But their ability to protect the football was another major reason. Their 13 total giveaways was tied for an NFL record low (with the '08 Giants). And their +17 in turnover margin led the NFL. On the flip side, 2009 was ugly. They turned the ball over 29 times and they ended the year -8 in turnover margin - the sixth worst figure in the entire league. While we can't expect a repeat of 2008, and improvement over 2009 is an absolute must of this team is serious about winning the AFC East.

Avoid injuries
Fine, so this part of the recipe is more about luck than anything else. But I do remember reading in the 2009 Football Outsiders Almanac that there's a statistical connection regarding injuries on a year-to-year basis. In 2008 the Dolphins were historically injury-free. They really didn't suffer any terrible losses, though I wouldn't call Greg Camarillo's season-ending injury minor. But it occurred late enough in the season that the Dolphins could survive without him. Then in the Almanac last year, it was predicted that the Dolphins would likely suffer a number of key injuries in 2009 simply because that's what the statistics historically show - that teams always revert back to the mean. So if you have a surprisingly injury-free season, you'll likely have a very injury-heavy season the following year to make up for it. I thought they were crazy, though, for believing in that theory. I guess I was wrong, huh? Season-ending injuries to Chad Pennington, Ronnie Brown, Patrick Cobbs, David Martin, and Will Allen as well as losing Channing Crowder and Jake Grove for multiple games made me a believer in the theory presented by the guys at Football Outsiders.

So avoiding any catastrophic injuries is going to be key for this team. Already we have to worry about the health of Jake Long and Channing Crowder (who did not practice on Monday) as well as Vontae Davis (who was seen limping after practice on Monday). Hopefully these things are minor. But they just emphasize how an entire season can change in the blink of an eye.

Have some damn fun
In 2008 the Dolphins came out of the gate and struggled. But their week three thrashing of the Patriots in New England - which was a thing of beauty, of course - was a clear turning point. They busted out the Wildcat formation - we all remember that. But what we might not remember is how much fun it seemed like these players were having on the field. They were playing looser. There was no pressure. After all, they were 1-15 the year before. How could they have any expectations at all, right?

It was obvious that 2009 was a different story. The team seemed tight. The coaches seemed very tight. It just felt like the pressure created from an improbable 2008 season was getting to everyone in that building. Actually, I know for a fact that the pressure inside that building was an issue in the locker room. As the season wore on, a lack of leadership inside that locker room also became an issue. And that is something we all know for a fact. That, my friends, has to change.

We all know that this team has high expectations internally. Owner Stephen Ross mentioned the Super Bowl this past offseason and Tony Sparano didn't shoot that idea down when it was mentioned to him. Sparano has also made it clear that he sees this team as a playoff team. The media, though, doesn't seem to agree. Many experts believe that this division will come down to the Patriots and Jets. That means very little, of course, once the whistle blows.

Off the field, the Dolphins are a team that tries to act as professionally as possible. Their players don't say anything flashy (Channing aside, of course). They don't make bold predictions (their owner not withstanding). Many just speak the company line and move on. On the field, though, we need to see the kind of passion we saw in 2008. We need to see that fire and that emotion that fueled the 2008 team. We need to see these players - and these coaches - playing loose and having fun. And if you are unsure of what I mean, then pop in a copy of a 2008 game followed by a copy of a 2009 game. You'll see exactly what I'm talking about.