Miami Dolphins

Dolphins in playoff hunt but run defense is now biggest concern

Miami Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi (55) watches as the New York Jets’ Greg Salas scores a first-quarter touchdown at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Dec. 1, 2014.
Miami Dolphins linebacker Koa Misi (55) watches as the New York Jets’ Greg Salas scores a first-quarter touchdown at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, Dec. 1, 2014. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The Dolphins emerged from their survival exercise against the Jets on Monday knowing they will enter Week 14 in the sixth and final AFC playoff spot, by virtue of a complicated tiebreaker, but also knowing that their run defense cannot repeat the debacle of the past two weeks.

After Denver amassed 202 yards on the ground against Miami a week ago, the Jets bludgeoned the Dolphins for 210 yards rushing in the first half Monday before closing with 277. The Dolphins, who ranked fourth against the run earlier this season, have slid to 21st.

“I’m not going to defend that we gave up 210 yards [rushing] in the first half,” defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said. “It was like a bad dream.”

But. …

“They ran the ball almost every play. We weren’t as bad as what it comes off initially. They hit three reverses, each about 20 yards apiece.

“There were some isolated breakdowns we need to get fixed. Some of the plays that have broken out on us are not your conventional run plays. Disappointed in the way we started the game. We have to do a better job.”

▪ The Dolphins crowded the line of scrimmage more in the second half, with the safeties playing closer to the line at times. The Jets averaged 7.2 yards per carry in the first half but just 3.4 in the second.

The run defense must be fixed by Sunday because the visiting Baltimore Ravens rank fifth in the league in rushing offense, and Justin Forsett leads all NFL running backs in average yards per carry, at 5.6. And unlike the Jets, the Ravens can throw effectively downfield if the Dolphins stack the box to stop the run.

On the playoff front, the Dolphins (7-5) still have an outside shot to win the AFC East. But if one presumes that the Patriots (9-3) aren’t going to lose their final two games (at the Jets and the Bills), then Miami needs to win its four remaining games (including at New England on Dec. 15) and the Patriots need to lose at San Diego on Sunday.

Such a scenario would leave both teams at 11-5 and give the Dolphins the AFC East title, by virtue of what would be a season sweep of New England.

Of course, a wild-card berth for the Dolphins is more likely than a division championship. Assessing where the Dolphins stand against the other wild card contenders: (One of the four AFC North teams cited below will win that division.)

▪ San Diego (8-4): It isn’t necessarily problematic that the Chargers are a game ahead of Miami for two reasons: Miami would win a two-team tiebreaker with San Diego by virtue of the Dolphins’ victory on Nov. 2. And the Chargers might have the most difficult remaining schedule of any contender: New England, Denver, at San Francisco and at Kansas City.

▪ Kansas City (7-5): In many ways, the Dolphins need to worry more about the Chiefs than the Chargers, because the Chiefs own a head-to-head tiebreaker with Miami and have an easier schedule than San Diego: at Arizona (whose offense has been struggling without Carson Palmer), Oakland, at Pittsburgh and San Diego, a team the Chiefs already beat once this season.

▪ Baltimore (7-5): Beating the Ravens Sunday is essential, not only to win a two-team tiebreaker against them, but also because the Dolphins can’t expect the Ravens to lose more than one other game, if that, with a remaining schedule of Jacksonville, at Houston and Cleveland. The Ravens could be hurt by their poor conference record (3-5), but it’s difficult to see Miami overtaking Baltimore without winning Sunday.

▪ Pittsburgh (7-5): The Dolphins and Steelers don’t play and have the same conference record (6-3). But Miami would have the edge, at the moment, in the next tiebreaker (common opponents) and would keep that edge if it beats Baltimore and the Jets, regardless of whether Pittsburgh beats Kansas City. The Steelers’ remaining schedule: at Cincinnati, at Atlanta, Kansas City and Cincinnati.

▪ Cleveland (7-5): The Dolphins look to be in good shape if they finish tied because of a superior conference record. Plus, the Browns have a tough remaining schedule: Indianapolis, Cincinnati, at Carolina and at Baltimore.

▪ Buffalo (7-5): Miami seems to be in good position in a two-team tie with the Bills. The teams split, but the next division tiebreaker is games within the division.

The Bills, 3-2 in the AFC East, finish the season at New England. The Dolphins, 3-1 in the division, could lose to the Patriots and still beat out the Bills in a tiebreaker if the Dolphins beat the Jets and the Bills lose at the Patriots in their finale. And the Bills have a difficult remaining schedule: at Denver, Green Bay, at Oakland, at New England.

▪ Cincinnati (8-3-1): Though the Bengals have a 1 1/2-game lead in the AFC North, they have a tough remaining schedule: Pittsburgh twice, at Cleveland and Denver. But because the Bengals have only three losses, it’s better for Dolphins fans to root for the Bengals when they play Pittsburgh twice and Cleveland once.

HARTLINE OK

The injury that forced Brian Hartline to miss the second half Monday is just a bruise and he hopes to play Sunday, barring a setback.

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