How’s this for drama: The next 12 days might determine more than the direction of the Dolphins’ 2014 season.
Some in football believe it could shape the franchise for years to come.
Joe Philbin probably needs to make the playoffs, or to come very close, to keep his job. Dolphins owner Stephen Ross demanded “progress” before the season, and another 8-8 year (or worse) is not that.
And the clock is ticking on Ryan Tannehill, who cannot afford many more games like he had in Jacksonville — where the Dolphins gained just 3 yards from scrimmage in the game’s first 26 minutes.
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On Sunday, the Dolphins play host to the Chargers. The game will be Tannehill’s 40th start, and by that point, quarterbacks usually are who they are. Only three Dolphins quarterbacks got a 41st start with the club — Dan Marino, Bob Griese and Jay Fiedler — and they all made the playoffs. Tannehill has not.
The problem is, there’s nowhere for the Dolphins to hide in November. The schedule softeners of the past month — Oakland and Jacksonville — can’t help them any more. Six of the next seven games are against teams that entered Week 9 with a winning record.
Their next four opponents have a combined .710 winning percentage — making for the most difficult month Philbin has seen as a head coach.
But even that might be selling it short. According to STATS LLC, the last time the Dolphins had a tougher stretch of games this late in the season was 1998, when their final four regular-season opponents had a combined 42-12 record.
Miami went 2-2 in those game, good enough to send it to the postseason.
The Dolphins will probably need at least the same level of success in these next four to get back there.
And in truth, few give Miami much of a chance in Denver in three weeks, where Peyton Manning has won 19 of 21 regular-season games with the Broncos.
That means the margin for error is next to nil in between now and Nov.13 — with home games against the Chargers and Bills and a trip to Detroit.
The players know the stakes. Dolphins defensive tackle Jared Odrick agreed that this upcoming stretch could define Miami’s season.
“And I think we approach it that way, in terms of knowing how important these next couple of games are and how good these opponents are,” Odrick said. “It’s definitely in our vision. It’s something that we think about.”
Odrick then caught himself, and reminded everyone that this is a one-opponent-at-a-time locker room — and for good reason.
The Chargers (5-3), even banged up, are a talented, well-coached group. Dolphins safety Louis Delmas suggested last week that Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers is a future Hall of Famer, and tight end Antonio Gates looks like the player of old.
And although playing at home will always be an edge, the Dolphins can’t rely on the early start to doom the Chargers — despite conventional wisdom.
Since Rivers became the team’s starting quarterback in 2006, San Diego has been nearly as good in 1 p.m. Eastern Time Zone games (15-14) as in road game played at all other time slots (21-18), STATS LLC has determined.
Plus San Diego has a score to settle. Or maybe seven. The Chargers haven’t won in Miami in nearly 33 years, a seven-game drought that includes playoffs.
That streak includes a riveting game last year, a 20-16 Dolphins win that came in the throes of their embarrassing bullying scandal.
The Chargers outgained Miami by nearly 100 yards that day but lost because they scored just one touchdown in three red-zone trips, and because Brent Grimes was Brent Grimes.
On the last play of the game, Grimes, somehow alone in single coverage with Vincent Brown, knocked down Rivers’ last-ditch pass to the end zone.
“You get sicker and sicker,” Rivers said of reliving the game. “All it does is refresh your memory on a bunch of plays that you wish you had back as a team, personally and as a team. Shoot, we had a chance. We had a chance in that game.”
Grimes has a way of eliminating those chances. His pick-six against Blake Bortles last week put the Jaguars away. The Dolphins’ pass defense in general has answered all questions, allowing just 211.6 yards through the air this year (third-fewest in football).
As for Tannehill and the Dolphins’ passing game? Those questions remain. Wide receiver Mike Wallace recently used a expletive when referring to Miami’s offense, and it’s hard to blame him.
“We’re frustrated at this point,” Tannehill said. “I think, not just Mike, not just me, not just the offense line, the whole offense is frustrated with the way that we played. We didn’t go out and play well at all, especially the first half.”
The first half of the season ends Sunday.
George R.R. Martin is right. Winter is coming, indeed.
Philbin’s father, Paul E. Philbin, died Friday night at the age of 93. The Dolphins’ coach had been away from the team Thursday and Friday, but he returned Saturday and will be on the sidelines Sunday.