It's hard to believe that we've already reached Week 12 of the 2014 NFL season. It's not hard to believe that the Miami Dolphins are right in the mix for a Wild Card playoff berth or even the AFC East division title considering how well the team has played as of late.
The Dolphins currently hold one of the AFC's two Wild Card slots and are two games behind the New England Patriots in the AFC East. But Miami's true standing in the AFC, and the NFL as a whole, will be tested this week as the Dolphins travel to Colorado to take on the Denver Broncos.
One question was on my mind when I first thought about this game. Would it have been better for Miami if these teams had squared off in the earlier portion of the season? With better weather and less significance?
But then it occurred to me-- the Dolphins have hit a stride over the middle portion of this season. This team has shown major improvement in 2014 and is getting hot at the right time.
The Dolphins are 5-2 in their last seven games, both losses coming in the final seconds of games against two winning teams with high-powered offenses (Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers). Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who collected a 74.6 quarterback rating in the first three games of the season, has averaged a rating of 101.7 over this stretch.
On top of that, this game may have more factors favoring the Dolphins than the Broncos.
The Broncos have the ultimate weapon of home field advantage, the crowd on their side. No team wants to travel to the defending AFC Champion's home field to try to pull out a victory, but the temperature at Mile High will be below 45 degrees.
Not many players enjoy playing in cold weather, and Peyton Manning is no exception.
In fact, Manning is his most vulnerable in the cold. The Broncos went 13-3 in 2013. Two of their losses came at home, and both of those losses came in games under 40 degrees. In fact, the first of those games was against and AFC East team (Patriots) in Week 12...
The Dolphins will have to overcome injuries to key player Sunday. But the Broncos may be without their top two running backs, Montee Ball and Ronnie Hillman, and two of their top receiving options in Emmanuel Sanders and Julius Thomas. That's a large portion of talented skill players on the sideline.
If those Broncos are unable to suit up, the Dolphins job on defense will get much easier. The Dolphins can attack the line of scrimmage while blanketing the Broncos top receiver, Demaryius Thomas. Reshad Jones should have a big game as a freelancer in this game (which I will touch on in a future article).
The Dolphins defense needs to continue their physical and opportunistic ways. Miami's defense has forced 14 turnovers in the past 5 games. The front seven has thoroughly controlled the line of scrimmage in the past three games. The continuation of these streaks has never been more important than this week against the Manning-led Broncos offense.
Manning is his most vulnerable in cold weather and against physical defenses (see Super Bowl XLVIII). He will face both Sunday. The Dolphins face one of their toughest challenges of the season Sunday, but this may be the most vulnerable they will find the Broncos, who have lost two their last three games. Luckily, it coincides with a streak of great team football by the Dolphins.
If the Dolphins continue the level of play they have displayed over the past few weeks then this game will be competitive until the end. However, it may take a new phase of growth for this team to pull out the victory. The ability to finish the game, whether offensively or defensively, and pull out the win late in the fourth quarter.