The Miami Dolphins' hopes for their first playoff berth since 2008 took a hit on Sunday when Miami fell to the Indianapolis Colts, but at the season's midway point, the 4-4 Dolphins are only a game behind the New England Patriots in the AFC East.
Even if Miami cannot catch the Pats, the Dolphins are also a game out of the wild card, behind 5-3 Indianapolis and 5-3 Pittsburgh. Miami's remaining opponents have a .470 winning percentage, and the Dolphins get two shots at the Patriots in December.
But Miami's upcoming stretch will be crucial in determining its playoff fate. On Sunday, the 3-6 Tennessee Titans visit Sun Life Stadium, followed by a Thursday night trip to Buffalo to face the 3-5 Bills. Win both, and the Dolphins are 6-4, with two more very winnable games against Buffalo and Jacksonville at home.
If Miami can win one of its other four games (against New England twice, San Francisco, and Seattle), the Dolphins would finish no worse than 9-7, which could be enough to sneak into the playoffs. Win two, and the record improves to 10-6, a virtual lock for a playoff spot in the AFC.
But the Dolphins have a number of critical issues facing them in the second half of the season. Their pass defense is among the worst in the league, which is not a promising sign for a team that still has to face Tom Brady and the Patriots twice.
But what really must be keeping Dolphins coach Joe Philbin up at night is his offensive line. Miami has only given up 16 sacks on the season (20th in the NFL), but the o-line's play has gotten worse as the season progresses.
On Sunday, Pro Bowl LT Jake Long was manhandled by Indy's Dwight Freeney, who spent a majority of the game on QB Ryan Tannehill's tail. "Like the rest of the offensive line, it's got to be better," Philbin said Monday. "Overall our offensive line play wasn't good enough, and he's part of that."
Coinciding with the deteriorating play of the offensive line has been a reduction in Miami's rushing yards. After rushing for 174 yards a game in the first three games of the season, the Dolphins have not cracked 100 yards in each of the five subsequent games.
Then there is Miami's sudden inability to get its defense off the field on third down. Indianapolis converted on 13 of 19 opportunities Sunday. Before then, the Dolphins were third in the league in third-down defense.
"Where do you want to start? I wish we could put our finger on one thing," Philbin said of the Dolphins' third-down trouble. "We used multiple calls, and they executed very, very well in that phase of the game, better than we did. It wasn't one thing. There were 19 third downs, enough to go around."
Even with these questions surrounding the team, the Dolphins' 4-4 record is still better than what prognosticators predicted for the team ahead of the season.