In beating the Seattle Seahawks Sunday, the Miami Dolphins improved to 5-6 and positioned themselves a game out of the final AFC Wild Card spot with five weeks left in the regular season. But while the playoffs remain a possibility for Miami, the Dolphins' remaining schedule presents an enormous obstacle.
Miami has home dates against 4-7 Buffalo and 2-9 Jacksonville to go with two games against AFC East-leading New England and a road trip to 8-2-1 San Francisco. If the Dolphins are to end a three-season playoff drought, they will have to beat some of the NFL's best teams.
Test number one comes Sunday, when the Dolphins host the Patriots. All Miami has to do is slow down the league's most prolific offense and run the ball on its 10th-ranked run defense.
"We're going to have to play our best game of the year to win," Dolphins coach Joe Philbin told the Miami Herald Monday. "We are going to have to score points to beat this team. That puts pressure on your offense."
The Patriots have won five games in a row to open up a 3-game lead over Miami in the AFC East, one which Miami will be hard pressed to erase with five games to go.
But with only two 6-5 teams (Pittsburgh and Cincinnati) ahead of Miami in the Wild Card Race, the Dolphins can potentially sneak into the playoffs if they go 4-1 or 5-0 over the season's last month.
"Every game is a playoff game from now on out," LB Kevin Burnett said after Sunday's game. "Now is the time."
The Dolphins' coaching staff did not reveal any secrets to slowing down Tom Brady and New England's offense, though.
"They're not a team that uses a lot of trickery," Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle told the Herald. "They do a great job of working matchups."
"We didn't have great success against them in Cincinnati," Coyle said of his former team. "Hopefully, we do a better job here."
That's hardly inspiring, but the Dolphins will need to be optimistic if they are to have any chance at slowing down Tom Brady, who is averaging 300 yards passing a game with 24 touchdowns against just 3 interceptions.
Miami gave up 16 consecutive completions to Seattle QB Russell Wilson on Sunday, en route to a 224-yard performance on 21-of-27 passing. That is hardly an encouraging sign.
The Dolphins have made major strides since last season's 6-10 debacle. Even counting that, they still face long odds to return to the playoffs in January.