At 6-6, the Miami Dolphins are one of the many AFC teams on the playoff bubble, and with a strong finish they can make the NFL's postseason for the first time since 2008.
"We are in the playoff hunt, and we have to win every game," said linebacker Dannell Ellerbe on Monday. "But it's very important to not look too far down the road."
First, Miami will have to win back-to-back games for the first time since September. After starting the season 3-0, the Dolphins have won only 3 of 9 games since.
"We've talked about how the performance level on the field has to be better in December, and part of that now is consistency," said coach Joe Philbin. "We're not going to reinvent ourselves from a schematic standpoint. We should have an identity by now of things we do well. We've got to be more consistent."
With 9-3 New England up 3 games in the standings with 4 games remaining, Miami's best hope is to secure the second AFC wild card berth (9-3 Kansas City can lock up the first Wild Card with two wins in the final four weeks, regardless of what anyone else does in the interim).
Miami is tied with Baltimore for sixth place in the AFC, but the Ravens have the tie-breaker over Miami thanks to their win against the Dolphins in October. There are four teams behind them at 5-7, including Miami's Sunday opponent the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Of those 6-6 and 5-7 teams, Miami has one of the easiest remaining schedules (besides Pittsburgh, they play 4-8 Buffalo, the 5-7 Jets, and New England).
A playoff berth would be an improbable outcome for a team who lost 4 games games in a row earlier in the year and nearly fell apart when an infamous bullying scandal broke in November.
The controversy led offensive lineman Jonathan Martin to leave the team for the remainder of the year, while Richie Incognito has missed four games after being suspended for his role in the scandal.
The Dolphins likely will have more fallout from the controversy when NFL investigator Ted Wells completes his investigation of team conduct (an investigation the team asked the league to conduct), but for now, the locker room is entirely focused on the playoff hunt.
As defensive end Olivier Vernon put it, "It's like the season has started over. It's 0-0, and we are going to try to grind out."