As the Miami Dolphins slogged through an 0-4 preseason, the notion of this team playing into January brought to mind former Saints and Colts coach Jim Mora’s famous November 2001 rant.
Though it’s way too early to give the matter considerable time or thought, the idea of Miami seriously competing for a postseason berth is no longer ludicrous or laughable.
The standings released by the league office Monday show the Dolphins (3-3) holding the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, behind Houston (6-1), Baltimore (5-2), New England (4-3), Denver (3-3) and San Diego (3-3).
Two other 3-3 teams, the Steelers and Colts, trail Miami in tiebreakers.
“It’s exciting to be where we are, but where we are isn’t comforting,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “Three and three is disappointing. We’re supposed to be 5-1. We’re two plays from two more wins.”
The Dolphins play the 3-4 Jets on Sunday and need to win to have any chance of winning a tiebreaker against New York, which beat Miami 23-20 in overtime on Sept. 23.
“I think we’re in a good spot,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. “It’s in our hands now. It’s all on us if we want to go out and make a run at this thing.”
So if the Dolphins keep playing well, what would be their most plausible course to nine victories? There are a few nine-win scenarios that are comparable in difficulty, including this one:
Win two of the next three games (at Jets, at Colts, home against Tennessee), beat Seattle at home Nov. 25, beat Jacksonville at home Dec. 16 and split with both the Patriots and Bills.
If Miami does that, and loses Dec. 9 in San Francisco, the Dolphins would finish 9-7.
In the 10 years since realignment, only eight teams have made the AFC playoffs with fewer than 10 wins. But the Bengals (9-7) did it last season, and it seems like a realistic possibility this year.
What is Miami’s most plausible, albeit difficult, course to 10 victories? Beat the Seahawks and Jaguars and split with the Patriots; win two of the next three (all winnable games); and take both games against the Bills, who have the NFL’s 31st-ranked defense. Miami swept Buffalo last season.
The Patriots are widely considered the AFC East favorite, but New England has shown vulnerabilities in blowing late leads in a loss to Seattle and Sunday’s overtime win against the Jets.
The Patriots, who play the Rams on Sunday in London, have two very difficult out-of-division games left, whereas Miami has only one.
But unlike the Dolphins, the Patriots will play host to San Francisco (Dec. 16). They also play host to Houston on Dec. 10.
Dolphins players said Monday the fact they’re in contention shouldn’t shock anyone.
“Last year, we served notice we’re a team not to be taken lightly,” said linebacker Kevin Burnett, referring to Miami’s 6-3 finish after an 0-7 start.
Said defensive tackle Tony McDaniel: “People shouldn’t be surprised. We thought we would be playoff contenders. We’re better than our record.”
Center Mike Pouncey said he was rooting for the Jets to beat the Patriots on Sunday because New York then “would have been in first place and we would have had an opportunity to jump them this weekend.”
Said Pouncey: “A lot of people doubted us. But one thing you can say about this team is we’re tough and we stick it out.”
On Sunday, Miami will visit a Jets team that ranks 30th defending the run and 26th in the league offensively in both running and passing yards per play. But Mark Sanchez threw for a season-high 328 yards against the Patriots on Sunday.
Unlike the first meeting between the Jets and Dolphins, New York will not have receiver Santonio Holmes, who sustained a season-ending injury the following week, but will have tight end Dustin Keller, who has 26 receptions for 304 yards and four touchdowns in his past five games against Miami.
“They utilize him like a wide receiver at times,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said.
Offensively, the Dolphins won’t need to contend with All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, who sustained a season-ending injury during the Dolphins game.
“They’re still able to do a lot of things,” Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said. “Antonio Cromartie is a great corner.”
Coach Joe Philbin said it’s too soon to monitor what other contenders are doing.
“I’ve never been a big believer [in scoreboard watching],” he said. “We like some of the things we’ve done, but we’ve got a lot of improving to do.”