Miami Dolphins

Dolphins have played small when the stage is big. 'We have to prove we can win one.'

The Dolphins under Adam Gase have disappeared when the lights go down.
The Dolphins under Adam Gase have disappeared when the lights go down.

As recently as a few months ago, the National Football League believed the Dolphins deserve a seat at the grown-ups' table.

But Thanksgiving is coming, and the Dolphins keep spilling the gravy, feeding the dog turkey and playing on their phones during the meal.

The Dolphins face the Panthers here Monday night, and Miami has a third chance to change its behavior — and impressions, assuming anyone is paying attention.

The latter will take a Herculean effort because, based on NBC's abysmal ratings for Miami's loss to Oakland in Week 9, people around the country have already hinted that they have seen enough of the Dolphins.

Losing back-to-back prime-time games by a combined score of 67-24 can do that. The betting public does not think Miami, a double-digit underdog to Carolina, has a chance Monday.

The Dolphins have only themselves to blame. Dating back to last year's beatdowns in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, seemingly every time they play in front of the entire country, they trip all over themselves.

And if the Dolphins fail to show up yet again, schedule-makers will be loathe to entrust Miami with a national audience in 2018.

"It’s a good challenge, a good challenge on a third national TV game in a row," Dolphins offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen said. "We have to prove we can win one. This is the kind of game that if you want to get where we want to go, you’ve got to go win one of these games in a prime-time, [against a] prime team and a team that’s playing extremely well. This is a big game.”

Here's how big:

The Dolphins (4-4), despite losing two straight and having the lowest-scoring offense in football through Week 9, still have a real chance to salvage their season.

They entered Sunday as the AFC's seventh seed, just a game behind the Bills — whom the Dolphins have yet to play.

The Dolphins, despite their many, well-documented shortcomings, still have a 15 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to FiveThirtyEight (although Football Outsiders is far less bullish, putting their postseason chances at just 7.1 percent).

The Dolphins’ record is the same as what it was at this point in 2016, although this year obviously feels much different. Last season proved that even a disastrous start can be overcome — and, at least for the offense, Dolphins coaches are optimistic that the close loss to Oakland was this year’s turning point.

Miami scored 24 points for just the second time this season, and Jay Cutler had his best game in a Dolphins uniform.

"That was really what I I’ve been waiting for," Dolphins coach Adam Gase said. "I felt like guys were in a good flow. I loved the energy that we had. We made mistakes, but we were giving ourselves a chance. If we eliminate some of those penalties, it’s a different game."

Granted, that came at home, with 10 days to prepare, against an Oakland defense that allows the fifth-most points in the NFL.

The Panthers are a different beast. Carolina ranks first in total defense (274.1 yards per game), second in rushing defense (78.4), fourth in scoring (17.7) and seventh in yards per play allowed (4.9).

Plus, this game is on the road, where the Dolphins are winless against teams with winning records in the Gase era.

"Hopefully it works out the same way that we hit our stride and we finally find our groove of offense, and we can keep our defense off the football field and help them win football games," Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said.

Pouncey continued: "Anything can happen. We know that the first half of the season obviously didn’t go the way we wanted. We had a lot of stuff going on. That’s no excuse. We still have to win those football games and this is a new season for us. We’ve got eight games to go out there and try and get into the tournament, and that’s our only goal."

The nation, or at least a sizable chunk of it, will be watching.

"Obviously when you’re on the big stage, you want to play as well as possible," Pouncey added. "We haven’t done that these past two times that we’ve been on the stage."

Adam H. Beasley: 305-376-3565, @AdamHBeasley