The Miami Dolphins, winners of three straight and four of their last five, can cement their status as a contender during the final two weeks of the season.
That doesn’t seem to add up at first glance. The Buffalo Bills and New York Jets — the only two teams standing in the way of the Dolphins and the franchise’s first playoff berth in five years — have only won a combined 11 games in 2013.
Both start a rookie at the game’s most important position. Both, in reality, have nothing to play for other than a lower draft selection. But by beating them, the Dolphins would have officially turned the corner and emerged from mediocrity to the status of a contender.
It doesn’t hurt that winning both games is the Dolphins’ easiest ticket to the dance as Joe Philbin‘s club controls its own destiny to qualify for the postseason. But looking beyond the playoff ramifications, two wins against two teams it should beat is all that’s left on the to-do list for a Dolphins team that has been seeking validation for years.
The underdog role suited Miami quite well. After pundits wrote the Dolphins off following a national controversy that supposedly revealed a dysfunctional locker room, the team embraced an us-versus-the-world mentality to the tune of a 5-2 record since the disgruntled Jonathan Martin went AWOL.
But it’s time to ditch the underdog role. It’s no longer valid. The Dolphins will be heavy favorites in their next two games, and with that new stature comes a new challenge: winning the games they’re expected to.
Handling inferior opponents is considerably easier said than done, especially when the pressure to so is at its highest and especially when the underdog has nothing to lose.
It’s easy to lose sight of the opportunity when the potential pitfall is so threatening. For the Dolphins, a loss to either the Bills or Jets might spoil what could become one of the most memorable seasons in team history otherwise. That could lead to Miami playing not to lose as opposed to playing to win.
And if anyone is expecting the Bills and Jets to lie down and give the Dolphins easy victories, think again. As rivals to Miami, both teams would love nothing more than to play the role of spoilers and knock their AFC East foe out of the playoffs.
Not to mention, we’ve already seen how the Dolphins have handled the role of favorites in 2013. After a 3-1 start, they had two consecutive home games they were expected to win. Two wins would have propelled Miami to 5-1, strengthening its candidacy as a team to beat in the AFC. Instead, the Dolphins lost both games, falling back into the pack of the muddled conference. A loss to the previously winless Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Monday Night Football in Week 10 also revealed a Dolphins team that was unable to handle the pressure of being the favorite.
The league’s true contenders — the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Seattle Seahawks and San Francisco 49ers of the world — handle their business against porous competition on a week in and week out basis. Sure there are slip ups every now and then. The NFL is a parity-driven league that repeatedly gives the saying “any given Sunday” validity. But for the elites losing to bottom feeders is atypical, especially when the stakes are amplified to the extent they will be for Miami.
If these Dolphins have really made the strides it appears they have they’ll need to embrace a challenge similar to the one they faced at 3-1. They’ll need to play to win as opposed to playing not to lose. They’ll need to stay focused on the opportunity instead of fearing the potential consequence. They’ll need to thrive as the favorite and take care of business against two teams they have no business losing to.
If Miami can beat the Bills and Jets to close out its regular season it’ll be winners of five consecutive games, heading to its first postseason in five years and a tough out for any of the AFC’s five other playoff teams. The Dolphins will finally, officially be a contender.
Cody Strahm is a Miami Dolphins contributor for Rant Sports. Follow him on Twitter @CodyJStrahm.