Nobody believes in the Miami Dolphins. OK, that may be too strong. There is a man in West Kendall with his face painted wearing a No. 8 Matt Moore jersey who's pumped, and there is a scattering of agnostics willing to at least entertain the argument that the Fins might be real. But, otherwise, nobody believes.
This could be hyperbole, but doesn’t it feel close to the truth? Miami is 4-2 with three wins in a row — only six NFL teams have better records — and yet the Dolphins are rated a below-the-middle 20th in the latest ESPN Power Rankings. A missed easy field goal by the Chargers, a Biblical-scale miracle in Atlanta, a last-minute gift from Josh McCown ... Miami is a bounce and a prayer from being 2-4 or even 1-5. Yes, you can parse most teams’ results with ifs like that, but in this case Miami's record does seem like a pretty little beachside cottage propped up on balsa-wood stilts.
[Writer’s note: Bear with us, Dolfan. We'll bang open the windows shortly and let some sunshine in. But, first, a little more gloom...]
The Dolphins’ offense ranks 32nd in total yards, 29th in rushing, 30th in passing and 32nd in scoring. Um, there are 32 teams. Miami's remaining schedule, based on composite current records of opponents yet to come, is third-most difficult in the league. That is why ESPN’s Football Power Index computer model gives the Dolphins only a 19 percent chance to make the playoffs, and has Miami more than 50 percent likely to win only two of its 10 remaining games.
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Now, Thursday night in Baltimore, the underdog Dolphins visit a nemesis opponent that has beaten Miami in six of the past seven meetings.
This opens up to the Fins an historically unique stage on which to preen, dance and otherwise declare themselves to the doubters (or to pratfall as those same nonbelievers smugly nod).
Baltimore is the first of three consecutive national prime-time games for Miami. That’s a first in this franchise's 52-year history. Two straight night games are rare enough; that’s happened a dozen times, last in 2013. But three straight weeks as the only game in town with everybody watching? Never, until now.
You want some national love, Dolphins? Some attention? Recognition? Props?
Go get it. Take it. Here’s your opportunity. Earn it with this prime-time trifecta. The Ravens, Oakland and Carolina are a combined 10-11. Nothing scary there, right?
Bang open that window and let that sunshine and breeze in.
There is something about these Dolphins. The transformation from the Joe Philbin era to Adam Gase has been stark. Palpable. Under Gase the Fins have won 12 consecutive games decided by seven points or fewer. Is winning close games a “skill”? Maybe not. But 12 in a row is not a small sample size. The NFL record is 14. You consistently win close games, it breeds confidence, becomes part of your team DNA.
This is the team that lost starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a season-ending injury during the preseason, and has now lost emergency replacement Jay Cutler to cracked ribs. This is the season born into a hurricane that wreaked havoc with Miami’s schedule and stole its bye week. This is the team that saw starting linebacker Lawrence Timmons go AWOL on the eve of the opener. The lockerroom that endured its offensive line coach resigning in shame after a video of him snorting a “white, powdery substance” at team headquarters.
“We Are Not Normal,” as those team T-shirts declare.
Few teams have overcome more obstacles to get to 4-2. Responding to challenges? That intangible may not be a “skill,” either. But it's something...
“Our guy just know that nobody cares how many injuries you have, hurricanes, losing players, coaches — nobody cares,” Gase said this week. “It’s all about, ‘What are you going to do?’ Are you going to win games or are you going to lose games? That’s all they care about.”
Two things about these Dolphins moving forward:
1) The drop-off from Cutler to Moore is negligible. I’d be as comfortable arguing Miami is better off with Moore, who knows the offense and his teammates better. (Just watch. The better Moore plays, the longer Cutler’s ribs will take to heal, wink wink).
2) Miami has a playoff-caliber defense, one good enough to make amends for offensive shortcomings. The unit that starts with Ndamukong Suh and Cam Wake is fifth in the league in stopping the run and has allowed the sixth-fewest points per game.
Again, though, this whole thing feels fragile. The Dolphins and their 4-2 record are that pretty beach house on balsa-wood stilts. Will this team and season stand strong, or topple?
Starting Thursday night, the next three games in prime-time, with America watching, will tell.