The Miami Dolphins have played an important role in the AFC playoffs, despite not even coming close to making the actual playoffs. With their win against the New England Patriots in Week 17, they changed the landscape of the Divisional and Championship games.
The Dolphins came limping in against the Patriots but the good news for them - and the others in the AFC - is that the Patriots came in limping even worse. With injuries to Julian Edelman, Danny Amendola, Rob Gronkowski and half their starting defense, it was going to be hard for the Patriots to play winning football regardless of who they were playing.
Against a dominant defensive line, the Patriots handed the ball off to begin the game. They continued to hand the ball off throughout much of the first half, even on third and long. When halftime came, many assumed they would come out firing on all cylinders in the second half. Yet, they continued to hand the ball off. Only when the Patriots realized they had to do something to come back did they start passing it. That's when Ndamukong Suh just about snapped Tom Brady in half. That moment in the game was a light bulb moment as it became clear why the Patriots just handed the ball off the entire game. They simply didn't have the talent to stop the Dolphins and they clearly didn't want to get anyone else hurt.
Of course, you need to give credit to the Dolphins. Ryan Tannehill played arguably his best game of the season as he threw the ball all over the field - short, medium and deep. He trusted his guys to make plays and they responded, especially DeVante Parker with an acrobatic over the back touchdown catch against one of the Patriots defenders. The defensive line was firing on all cylinders and the secondary were making plays all over the field. While the Dolphins' season was done for all intents and purposes, it was clear that these players weren't lying down and were doing everything they can to get interim head coach Dan Campbell a win on his way out.
As cameras zoomed in on the Patriots sideline in the waning moments, we saw frustrated looks on head coach Bill Belichick, Brady and numerous others. For any Dolphins fan and even fans who love to hate the Patriots, it was a welcome sight.
Now, realize that with that win, the Dolphins knocked the Patriots to the number two seed and pushed the Broncos to the number one seed. While that didn't impact the opening round of games, it has played a role last weekend. Had the Patriots won, they would've faced the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Broncos would have faced the Kansas City Chiefs. Two rivalry games that could've gone in either direction, which is why it now gets a bit tricky.
Had the Steelers faced the Patriots, it's quite conceivable that they could have gone into Foxborough and come away with a victory. Yes, Antonio Brown was hurt and they were down to their third and fourth string running back. But, they still played hard and were on the verge of defeating the Broncos before an untimely fumble at the end of the game.
The Chiefs and Broncos squared off twice this season and they split with the Broncos winning on the road in Kansas City and the Chiefs winning in Denver. Two teams who know each other very well and again, it could have gone in either direction. Imagine now, if one of them had pulled off a victory. Better yet, imagine if both the Chiefs and Steelers had both pulled off a victory. The narratives, storylines and atmosphere of AFC Championship Weekend would be completely different.
But, that's not the case. The Patriots and Broncos are in the championship game. It's New England traveling to the Mile High City in an attempt to make their second consecutive Super Bowl. One might think that it's not a huge deal to travel on the road. But, let's look further.
Gillette Stadium opened in 2002 and they've played 118 games there, including playoffs. Their record in those 118 games is 96-18, a winning percentage of .842. Darrelle Revis, who played with New England for a season, said that Gillette Stadium is absolutely electric.
"It goes way long before me," Revis told NESN last year. "Even in my past, when I was on the opposite side, it's always tough to play here. I don't know what it is. It's just very tough to play here. It's to our advantage, it's definitely to our advantage, and we're going to keep using that, using the 12th man, using the crowd. It's just static, man. I don't even know. It could be like, Michael Jackson performing or something, and it's electric when you play at this stadium every Sunday."
On the flip side, the atmosphere in Denver is just as electric. The stadium sits 5,280 feet above sea level, which is exactly one mile. The altitude plays a key role in the way the oxygen sits in the air, better known as it being thin air, which makes it harder to breathe. Looking at the Patriots, Tom Brady is 2-6 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
Rodney Harrison, who played with Brady and is now an analyst on NBC, told the Boston Herald that he truly believes it is because of the altitude.
"It's so hard from a quarterback's perspective. If you're not used to throwing in it, it's different. It's completely different," Harrison said. "And it's completely different as a player. You think you're in shape, you've been training for six or seven months, and you go out there and you're running around the stadium to get warmed up, and you're gasping for air."
He continued by saying that it's a real issue, despite what the coaches may say leading up to the game.
"I think it's a big factor. It's a real issue," he said, "and it affects quarterbacks. A coach dismisses it because he doesn't want the players to consciously think that it's a distraction. But I played out there in the AFC West nine years. I played in Denver every single year. I played against John Elway and all those boys. If you're not used to playing in it, which the opposing team is not used to playing in it, it still affects you."
The final result will be determined in between the lines on Sunday but all of this is important leading up to the game. Of course, we are all tired of the Dolphins playing spoiler the last few weeks of the season. With a playoff drought since 2008, everyone is hungry to get back into the Super Bowl race.
With new head coach Adam Gase leading the charge, things are once again looking up in Miami but can they sustain that momentum when the results are decided on the football field? That remains to be seen. In the meantime, enjoy this weekend and understand that the Dolphins have played a huge role in the AFC Playoffs.
This column was written by Matthew Cannata. Follow him on Twitter! Follow @FinsInsider