The National Football League does a few things remarkably well.
Securing massive television deals.
Procuring public dollars for stadiums.
And manufacturing late-season drama.
Nineteen of the NFL’s 32 teams still have a playoff pulse with two weeks to play. Of the 16 games scheduled for this weekend, all but three have postseason significance.
That includes the Dolphins’ visit to play the Buffalo Bills in Western New York, where Miami has won in December just three times in its 48-year history.
Advanced math is not needed to break down the Dolphins’ playoff scenarios: Win the last two games — against the Bills and Jets — and they’re in for the first time since 2008.
And by doing so, the Dolphins would accomplish something even more rare: beating division opponents in three consecutive weeks for the first time in nearly three decades.
One down (the Patriots, a week ago), two to go.
“I remember looking at [the schedule] in the beginning of the season and I was like, ‘I never thought we were going to have three divisional games, back-to-back-to-back,’ ” Dolphins defensive end Olivier Vernon said. “These last two weeks are very important to us.”
They usually are. The Dolphins have won divisional games in three consecutive weekends just six times — and made the playoffs in each of those seasons.
But those past triumphs all came when the AFC East had five teams, which made a divisional triple-header far more common than it is now.
The Dolphins still could make the playoffs even if they don’t sweep the division down the stretch, but a loss in the next eight days would spoil any chance of winning the AFC East.
“I think you never want to be in a situation where you’re sitting around, watching games in a hope of someone losing,” said receiver Brian Hartline, who needs just 75 receiving yards to reach 1,000 for the second consecutive season. “Now you watch it out of a curiosity.”
In an illustration of just how fluid the playoff race is, the Dolphins could just as easily earn a first-round playoff bye as they could get eliminated from contention altogether Sunday.
One thing is certain: They will have no chance in windy, rainy Orchard Park, N.Y., on Sunday if they don't take better care of the ball than the last time they faced the Bills.
In October, the Dolphins fell behind 14-0 after two first-half turnovers — including an interception from Ryan Tannehill that Nickell Robey returned for a touchdown. Then they literally fumbled the game away late when Mario Williams strip-sacked Tannehill.
“Obviously, we want to have a better six minutes of the football game when they came down here, and then we want to finish,” tackle Tyson Clabo said. “We were in a position to make some plays at the end of the game and we didn’t make them. Those are the things we’re going to try to do better this week.”
Those are things they have been doing better throughout the second half of the season. They scored game-winning touchdowns late against the Steelers and Patriots in the past two weeks.
And after turning the ball over 18 times in their first 11 games, the Dolphins have just three giveaways in December.
They're now plus-2 in turnovers this season (fourth-best in the AFC), which makes up for the fact that they have been outgained by nearly 400 yards.
“I think just taking better care of the ball, making better decisions, learning from mistakes — I think that’s a big part of it,” Tannehill said. “I try not to make the same mistake twice, the same bad throw twice. That and the good coaching around me — the coaches are putting me in situations where I can succeed.”
But now, the only measure of success is the playoffs.
A loss to either Thad Lewis or Geno Smith in the final two weeks would be disastrous — no matter the history of the teams involved.
“I’m one of those guys who [believes] luck favors the ready,” said defensive end Cameron Wake, who at age 31 is still seeking his first playoff appearance. “You prepare, do your job, and things happen.
“We've been in so many close games where you know that this game probably isn’t going to be any different. You have to play every single snap.”