There is precious little margin for error for the Dolphins now, which isn’t surprising when your team fritters away three four-quarter leads in a seven-week span.
And so the Dolphins enter December in this pressure-packed predicament: needing to win at least four of their final five games to have a realistic chance of a playoff berth in a highly competitive AFC.
The good news for the Dolphins: They likely will be favored to beat the Jets twice (including next Monday night in New Jersey), Baltimore at home and Minnesota at home. If they win those four, they get to 10 victories for the first time since winning 11 in 2008.
The bad news: Ten wins might not be enough to make the playoffs. And so the Dolphins might also need to win Dec.15 against steamrolling New England. A win against the Patriots would be essential if the Dolphins slip up in one of the other four games.
Coach Joe Philbin had no interest in playoff talk Monday, instead choosing to discuss a few troubling issues that surfaced in Sunday’s 39-36 loss to Denver. Among them: Miami’s difficulty holding late leads.
Philbin said some teams “step up and make plays at critical times. At some point in time, we have to be able to do that. We’ve had some good margin of victory [all six wins by double digits]. But you look at the last three losses we’ve had and they are by three, four and three points. We have to find a way to win some of those games. We have to do better.”
One of the puzzling stats of the year: The Dolphins have outscored teams 120-41 in the third quarter but been outscored 82-54 in the fourth.
Philbin had no explanation for the fourth-quarter falloff. But this much he’s sure of: The Dolphins must tackle better than they did Sunday in Denver.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said the team’s tackling Sunday was “not acceptable.”
Philbin said: “I thought it would be better. It certainly wasn’t up to our standards.”
What was most surprising was how a Dolphins defense that entered eighth in the league in run defense was pulverized for 201 yards (5.7 per carry) against a Denver team that entered 31st in rushing.
“I didn’t think our fundamentals were where they needed to be,” Philbin said. “It starts with me. The head coach is responsible for the way the team looks from a fundamental standpoint. We have to play much better. We have to fundamentally get off blocks better.”
Coyle seemed perplexed by the Dolphins’ inability to stop the run.
“I thought they were being very physical,” he said. “I didn’t think we were as physical as we normally are at the point of attack.”
But there were other failures. The Dolphins had only one quarterback hurry all game (by Jared Odrick). Jelani Jenkins was credited with a sack on a play in which Peyton Manning decided to fall to the ground.
Coyle said part of the reason for the lack of pass rush was that Manning “gets the ball out quick” and only nine of his 35 pass attempts were “downfield throws.”
Nevertheless, “we weren’t very successful rushing the quarterback,” Coyle said. “A couple of times, we had some maximum coverages that we felt might be the answer to some of the passing game that they were utilizing. We weren’t on point with some of our coverages as we needed to be.”
Philbin also held himself responsible for other shortcomings.
“Fundamentally, we had too many penalties [six],” Philbin said. (Three were committed by Jimmy Wilson.)
“I didn’t think we looked like a great football team. That starts with me. We didn’t lose a lot of fumbles, but the ball was on the ground a bunch. There are things we have to get better at, and that’s my job.”
The Dolphins’ defense continues to look good in league rankings — Miami is now fourth in total defense and tied for seventh in points allowed — while also displaying a propensity to unravel in key late-game moments.
“There’s always, as everybody says, those five or six plays that make a difference,” Coyle said. “Well, we didn’t make any one of those five or six. Our inability to make a play in crunch time really hurt us.”
Just as it did against Green Bay and Detroit.
Which is why the Dolphins find themselves in this prickly spot, 10th in the AFC standings entering Monday’s games and with their playoff hopes dangling precariously.