Mapping out Miami Dolphins’ path to 2020 NFL playoffs: Wild card or bust

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The idea of the 2020 Miami Dolphins making the playoffs was a pipe dream a year ago. Miami was 3-11 following a 16-point loss to the lowly New York Giants, and all the attention was on the draft and landing a franchise quarterback.

Now on Dec. 15, 2020, the Dolphins (8-5) have Tua Tagovailoa and a real chance to make the postseason. While it has been an incredible one-year turnaround, the journey to the playoffs is not easy. In fact, the odds are against the Dolphins, as they have a 30.2% chance to make the playoffs, per ESPN’s NFL Playoff Predictor.

If anything has been learned about these Dolphins, it’s that they regularly exceed expectations.

“We’re in a position where we get to play some meaningful games and that’s good, but in order to take advantage of them, we can’t be thinking three, four, five weeks ahead,” Dolphins coach Brian Flores said.

Let’s dissect the Dolphins’ path to the postseason as they approach a difficult final stretch (vs. New England Patriots, at Las Vegas Raiders and at Buffalo Bills).

Three things to know

The Dolphins’ playoff hopes are likely wild card or bust. The Bills (10-3) have a 99% chance of winning the AFC East, per ESPN’s Football Power Index, after Sunday night’s win against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Dolphins would have to win out and the Bills would have to lose their final three games to get a division title.

Secondly, the Dolphins can solve a lot of their playoff worries by beating the Patriots (6-7) and Raiders (7-6). If they do so, they have a 75.9% chance to get in even with a season-ending loss to the Bills.

The third thing to know is the Ravens’ Monday night win against the Browns put a notable dent in the Dolphins’ hopes. The Chiefs and Steelers have clinched a playoff spot already with five other teams — Bills, Titans, Ravens, Colts, Browns — each having at least a 81% chance to make the playoffs, per ESPN’s Playoff Predictor.

That would leave the Dolphins with the eighth-best AFC odds to make the playoffs (30.2%), which would leave them on the outside looking in. Their biggest impediments to the playoffs would be the 8-5 Ravens (86.5%), 9-4 Colts (84.9%) and 9-4 Browns (81%). That would likely force them to rely on at least one of three scenarios: win out, rely on the Ravens losing a game against an easy closing schedule (Jaguars, Giants, at Bengals) or rely on the Colts or Browns to lose at least two of their final three games.

Mapping out the Dolphins’ path

Other playoffs odds from the Playoff Predictor will become more clear depending on how the Dolphins fare in their final three games. Here are a few:

  • If the Dolphins beat the Patriots on Sunday, their odds to make the playoffs improve to 48.4%.

  • If the Dolphins beat the Patriots and Raiders, but they lose to the Bills, they have a 75.9% chance of getting in.

  • If the Dolphins beat the Patriots and Bills, but they lose to the Raiders, they have a 58.3% chance of getting in.

  • If the Dolphins lose to the Patriots, but they beat the Raiders and Bills, they have a 79% chance of getting in.

All the chances above depend on Miami getting to 10 wins, and even then, there’s no guarantee. Getting to 10 wins, however, is very important. If the Dolphins lose two of their final three games, they will have less than an 8% chance of making the playoffs. If one of those losses is against the Raiders, their odds drop to about 5%.

Deeper look at final three games

Week 15 vs. the Patriots (1 p.m. ET, CBS): Though the analytics give Miami a 48% chance to win, the Dolphins are 3.5-point home favorites over a Patriots team coming off a 24-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams. The Dolphins have their own offensive problems as Mike Gesicki, DeVante Parker, Myles Gaskin, Jakeem Grant and Salvon Ahmed are among the top playmakers who are dealing with injury and/or COVID-19 issues. The Patriots beat Miami, 21-11, in the opener, but both teams have evolved since that game. It might be up to Tagovailoa to take care of the ball and overcome Patriots coach Bill Belichick’s aggressive scheme to get the win.

Week 16 at the Raiders (8:15 p.m. ET, NFL Network): The Raiders have been an enigma all season. They are the only team to beat the Chiefs, but needed a Hail Mary to beat the winless Jets. It’s anybody’s guess which Raiders team will show up against Miami. This is a team that fired its defensive coordinator on Sunday. It’s a prime-time game, and Raiders running back Josh Jacobs is a handful to contend with and could test the Dolphins’ defense.

Week 17 at the Bills (1 p.m. ET, CBS): The biggest question is if the Bills will still have anything to play for going into this game. The Bills will likely have the AFC East wrapped up, but could be fighting for seeding. If the No. 1 seed is still up for grabs, the question for Miami will be if Buffalo plays its starters. The Bills won the first game, 31-28, as quarterback Josh Allen was one of the few quarterbacks to torch the Dolphins’ defense this season. A cold season-ending game in Buffalo isn’t a fun place to be, but it could be a spot where Miami needs to win to get in.

‘We keep fighting’

The Dolphins’ 2020 season should be considered a success whether they make the playoffs or not. It’s easy to remember Miami is still in Year 2 of a substantial rebuild.

How Flores has guided this team from tanking cries after an 0-7 start to the 2019 season to knocking on the door of a playoff spot is deserving of consideration for NFL Coach of the Year. For the Dolphins to make the playoffs now would serve as invaluable experience for the growth of Tagovailoa and the rest of this young team.

The Dolphins don’t have many stopgap players, meaning most of the roster is likely to continue ascending and developing while they add talent with their plethora of salary-cap space and 2021 draft capital (two first-round and two second-round picks).

“This team, we don’t give up, man. We keep fighting,” Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said. “That’s one thing we preach about at practice. We keep fighting no matter what.”

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