Miami Dolphins — playoff contenders.
Sounds strange, you say? Isn’t this the team that has won just twice since October?
Well, it shouldn’t sound odd. The league is configured to produce just this scenario.
Even at 6-8, the Dolphins — playing host to Buffalo (5-9) on Sunday — are one of 19 teams that could be in the playoffs with two games left.
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Call it competitive balance, call it parity or — perhaps most accurately — call it mediocrity. Just don’t call it call it boring.
And certainly don’t call the Dolphins unworthy.
“It’s not like, ‘Oh, we don’t deserve it,’ ” said defensive end Jared Odrick, perhaps taking a preemptive strike against the inevitable criticism should Miami somehow sneak into the field.
“You can’t tell anybody that in this room, or anybody’s body, that we don’t deserve it. Our bodies definitely take a toll, and [we’ve] put ourselves in the position to have a question of the playoffs still lingering. You always deserve it.”
That position is tenuous nonetheless. The Dolphins must beat the slumping Bills and up in Pittsburgh, the Steelers have to beat the Bengals for Week 17 to matter. And even then, four more outcomes need to go Miami’s way. There’s a reason oddsmakers are putting the Dolphins’ chances at 1 in 50.
Still, it’s not unprecedented for a surprise team to get into the playoffs. In each of the past two years, a team with a record of .500 or below has done so (Denver in 2011, Seattle in 2010).
Last year, the Bengals earned the sixth and final seed despite losing on the last week of the season. Losses by the Raiders and Jets allowed Cincinnati to back into the postseason.
Packers’ title run
And the year prior, Green Bay — with Joe Philbin as its offensive coordinator — used similar fortune to kick-start a championship run.
The Packers won their final two regular-season games to be the last team into the NFC field — and didn’t lose again, reeling off six wins in a row en route to hoisting the Super Bowl trophy named after their iconic late coach.
“I remember sitting [and] eating dinner on Christmas Day and knowing certainly we weren’t in it at that stage of the game,” Philbin said this week.
“I think if you ask 32 coaches on 32 teams, the players on 32 teams, people make a lot of sacrifices,” Philbin added. “This is a great profession; it is a privilege to be associated with the NFL, but you give up a lot of things to be associated with the NFL as well. So when you do this, you want to compete and be the best. You want to get to the playoffs, no doubt about it.”
Yet the Dolphins’ first-year coach wouldn’t entertain the “what-if’’ game, even though he would be justified in doing so.
The Dolphins have given away four games to teams with losing records — including overtime losses to the Jets and Cardinals, in which Dan Carpenter missed kicks that would have won each of them. (Carpenter went on injured reserve this week with a groin injury; he has been replaced by veteran Nate Kaeding.)
“That’s why it’s so important at the beginning of the season to get off to a good start,” running back Reggie Bush said. “We lost some overtime games that we easily could have won. So, you look back or you at least try to learn from those mistakes because it is hard enough to win in this league as it is.
“You never know when those losses are going to hurt you toward the end of the season.”
Win or lose, there’s a real chance that Sunday will be Bush’s last game in a Dolphins uniform. Same goes for Brian Hartline, Sean Smith, Randy Starks and the rest of the roughly 20 Dolphins players whose contracts expire at year’s end.
Even if Miami somehow gets in, there’s no way the city will host a playoff game in any round. And so, Sunday will bring an end to a Dolphins home season that will likely go down as the least-attended in more than two decades.
Through Week 15, the Dolphins’ average home attendance — 57,795 — was fourth-worst in the league.
The Dolphins avoided any blackouts by taking advantage of new league rules that consider games a sellout if teams sell 85 percent of non-premium seats.
The organization made it a point to reach that threshold for each game, but often only by buying up remaining inventory to get over the hump. Last week’s win over Jacksonville was played in front of a one-third empty stadium, and even with playoff ramifications, Sunday might not be much better.
As for the pending free agents, it’s too early for the long goodbye. They say there’s simply too much to play for.
“There will come a time for the business side of football, but right now we’ve still got two games left, and I want to finish the season strong,” Bush said.
Added Cameron Wake: “We’re always the best friend and not the date. I want to go out there and play. But at the end of the day, we can’t blame anybody but ourselves. We are where we are.”