NFL locker rooms are still a bit like fraternity houses — despite the league’s best efforts to button things up. And the better the party, the looser the team.
So if the Dolphins were at all tight in the build-up to Sunday’s pivotal clash with the Broncos, they hid their nerves well.
The changing room was the same as it ever was. Music blared. The intrasquad cornhole games, now as much a part of Dolphins headquarters as the cold tub, elicited the usual trash talk.
And Mike Wallace was in front of his locker, holding court about money.
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Not his own, mind you. Rather, Wallace marveled about the 13-year, $325million deal recently awarded to Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton.
“We’re in the wrong sport,” Wallace said with a chuckle.
That segued naturally into a discussion about guaranteed contracts — which exist in baseball, but not football. Of course, Wallace believed it should be reversed.
“We take the most risk,” said Wallace, who is in Year2 of a five-year, $60million pact. “I think we should get a little bit more. It is what it is. I don’t think it’s going to change.”
The off-topic, yet topical conversation went on a bit longer before someone finally steered it back to what Wallace is paid handsomely to do: Be the difference in massively hyped — and massively important — games like the one on Sunday.
The Dolphins (6-4), most decidedly, are underdogs. Bettors have made the Broncos (7-3) a touchdown favorite all week — even with Denver’s battered lineup.
And yet, CBS has decided to send 81percent of the country Sunday’s Mile High Showdown, giving the Dolphins their best chance of the year to change impressions.
Plus, the game’s outcome will have a butterfly effect on the entire AFC playoff picture. Both teams will play in January if they win out. But whereas a loss would cripple neither, it certainly wouldn’t help their chances.
Twelve AFC teams entered Week 12 no more than a game out of the playoffs. And this could be the year that 11 wins is needed to get in.
“Here on out, we understand that each game’s critical,” defensive tackle Jared Odrick said. “Each one will affect our seeding in the playoffs.”
Added Odrick: “That’s what you think about each time you step on the field. Playoffs, playoffs, playoffs. We want it. We need it. We haven’t been there since I’ve been here. It’s our driving force. I think it’s a good motivator.”
Odrick’s defense will probably show up (even without Cortland Finnegan, who is unlikely to play because of an ankle injury). It almost always does.
Miami leads the league in yards per play allowed (4.7) and ranks in the top five in total defense (302.5 yards per game), pass defense (208.0) and scoring defense (18.0 points per game).
The question, as it has been for the past decade, is this: Which Dolphins offense will take the field?
The one that blew out the Chargers? Or the one that slumped against the Jaguars?
Ryan Tannehill has yet to post back-to-back games with a passer rating of 85 or better this year. Since he lit up the Bills the last time out, history suggests he’s due for a clunker.
And as Tannehill goes, so goes his team.
In Miami’s six wins, Tannehill has completed 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,457 yards, 12 touchdowns and just three interceptions. His numbers in the Dolphins’ four losses: 61.5 percent, 897 yards, five scores and four picks.
“I feel confident in this team,” Tannehill said. “I feel like we are a good team. I feel like we have all the pieces. The defense is playing really well right now. Offense is continuing to get better week in and week out. Obviously, we’re not perfect. We want to get better, but I feel like we are headed in the right direction coming up in the last six games of the year, the most critical part of the season. We are headed in the right direction and certainly have momentum.”
And they seemingly enter the season’s stretch run with the right frame of mind.
“We know how important this game is,” Wallace said. “Not because we’re playing the Denver Broncos. More from the standpoint that we know what we have at stake. We know we want to go to the playoffs. And in order to do that, we have to beat teams like this.
“They’re just another team in our way.”