Sunday’s showdown with the AFC East-leading New England Patriots won’t be an elimination game for the Miami Dolphins, but it will be the most important game to date in the Joe Philbin era and in Ryan Tannehill‘s career.
For as long as the two remain head coach and quarterback respectively, they will be synonymous with the Dolphins’ successes and failures. Both stand to gain the most for topping a team that Miami hasn’t beaten in seven consecutive tries.
GM Jeff Ireland dished out nearly $250 million on new contracts, and picked up an athletic pass rusher and two cornerbacks in the draft this past offseason with the vision of beating the Patriots and winning the AFC East title. While the Dolphins’ division-title hopes are not technically dead, that dream likely won’t come to fruition in 2013.
All the Patriots need is one more win or one more Dolphins loss to clinch their fifth consecutive AFC East crown. Miami’s goals are modified heading into Week 15, but they aren’t any less vital to the well-being of the organization.
Although it likely won’t be attained by a division championship this season, qualifying for the playoffs has been this team’s primary objective all along. That dream remains alive and well for the Dolphins, and with a win over the Patriots on Sunday, their probability of playing in a postseason game will be as plausible as it’s ever been under the current regime.
For Philbin and Tannehill, it would be a new height. The two have had some good moments. The two have had some bad moments. Neither has had a great moment.
Under Philbin, the Dolphins have hovered around the mediocre to average, to even good status over the past two years. They’ve never had that breakthrough win which propels the franchise among the league’s contenders. With a win in Week 15, the Dolphins would be two games over .500, winners of three consecutive games and possibly in the driver’s seat for the AFC‘s second wild card spot.
With an eye on the future, it would also undoubtedly induce a turning-of-the-tides euphoria for Miami. The Patriots have owned the AFC East for the better part of the new millennium, but their reign can’t last forever.
With Tom Brady a year older and tight end Rob Gronkowski quite possibly missing significant time, 2014 could finally be the year New England is overtaken. By beating Bill Belichick and company on Sunday, the Dolphins could establish the momentum they need for a run at doing so.
For Tannehill, a quarterback whose improvement has been undeniable during his second season, beating the Patriots would be the signature win his resume is missing. So far in 2013, Tannehill has completed more passes, thrown for more yardage and tossed more touchdown passes than he had during his entire rookie year.
I don’t see wins and losses as a quarterback statistic, but the Dolphins are one win away from improving on their 7-9 standing in 2012, and the progression of Tannehill is a major reason why. But, the young passer hasn’t led the Dolphins to a win that instantly commands the respect of the country. He’s yet to have that awe-inspiring moment that seemingly signifies himself as the long-term answer at quarterback for Miami.
A win over the Patriots would be affirmation for Tannehill, assuming he play well, which will likely be necessary for victory.
Add what a win would do for Miami’s playoff hopes into the equation, and it’s easy to see why Sunday will be the biggest game for the Dolphins in quite some time. They could still go on to make the playoffs with a loss, but their postseason hopes would potentially upgrade from possible to likely with a win.
For the Dolphins, as a whole the stakes are pretty straightforward, but they run much deeper for Philbin and Tannehill. Victory would not only elevate the two’s current standing, but the prospects of their futures as well; and there’s no better feeling for a football team and its fans than having a successful present and a bright future. What an opportunity Sunday’s game presents.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.