The Dolphins have something to prove — all over again.
The team that spent the past 12 weeks proving it’s more like the squads fondly remembered by Baby Boomers than the ones so horrifyingly familiar to Millennials is in the playoffs now. And, yes, that was the goal. And, yes, that in of itself makes the 2016 season something of a success.
But now this team that surprised everyone — except themselves, they say — by playing well and running counter to a recent history of disappointment, wants to convince us that all that winning wasn’t a coincidence.
It wasn’t a mirage.
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It wasn’t luck.
This team wants to remind us they’re pretty good — as in playoff good.
Running back Jay Ajayi tried to do that a few days ago by saying something akin to “We have players, too” and then detailing the obvious strengths of the Dolphins offense. He was making the point that even in comparison to the Pittsburgh Steelers, whom the Dolphins will play Sunday, the Miami roster is a good one.
That has been easy to forget the past week or so because pundits and so-called NFL experts have basically dismissed the Dolphins as inferior or unworthy of these playoffs.
As a surprise to me, multiple players noticed these outside-the-buliding opinions. They’ve watched in amazement and mounting annoyance that practically no one is giving them a chance to win this game. It has become a conversation in some corners of the locker room.
“It’s a disrespect, man,” one player told me in confidence.
“People musta forgot we won 10,” another player texted. “Gotta remind them.”
That is exactly right.
The Dolphins want respect. But it’s up to them to go and get it against the favored Steelers.
And here’s the interesting part: It will not be easy because, unfortunately for the Dolphins, there is some validity to the idea they are a Cinderella team whose dance night is coming to an end.
There is no denying the Steelers are the more experienced team. They’ve been in seven playoff games since the Dolphins made their last playoff appearance eight years ago.
There is no denying the Steelers are the hotter team, having won seven consecutive games.
And, sorry Jay, the idea the Steelers are more talented is pretty compelling, too.
Ajayi obviously looks around and sees Miami’s receivers and a relatively healthy offensive line. He looks past the fact the starting quarterback is a backup because Matt Moore has played well in relief of Ryan Tannehill.
But I seriously doubt any Dolphins player is thinking they’re about to face a future Hall of Fame quarterback for the second week in a row and the last guy, New England’s Tom Brady, lit them up last last week.
No amount of Dolphins bravado is going to diminish Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger or running back Le’Veon Bell or receiver Antonio Brown. Those guys are not going to go away simply because the Dolphins are irritated.
The Dolphins, it must be said, reject the notion they are diminished by injuries. Coach Adam Gase has engrained that next-man-up credo into his players so well that they’re actually believing it.
But can we be real?
The Dolphins are relying on too many next men. Reshad Jones is the man. Mike Pouncey is the man. Tannehill is the man. Isa Abdul-Quddus is the man.
The next men behind those injured starters are simply not quite as good. And if they are, then the coaching staff blew it sitting them behind those other guys. That’s the reality of Miami’s injuries now.
One more thing:
In the playoffs, the Dolphins won’t face teams with losing records, so that 9-1 record they had against teams with losing records won’t help them now. They will, however, face winning teams every single week they advance and suddenly that 1-4 record they had against those type of teams becomes worrisome.
The Dolphins, however, are not worried. They’re confident. They’re motivated.
They want to show everyone what they did in the regular season can carry over to the playoffs.
Great. Show us.