Armando Salguero

Answers to the two questions that will determine the Miami Dolphins’ playoff fate

Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore (8) with injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) on the sidelines as the Miami Dolphins host the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, January 1, 2017.
Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore (8) with injured quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) on the sidelines as the Miami Dolphins host the New England Patriots at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, January 1, 2017. adiaz@miamiherald.com

It was almost two hours after Sunday’s loss and some Miami Dolphins coaches were still reliving the 35-14 loss to the New England Patriots, playing what-ifs, letting their competitive juices allow them to think changing three or four little things might have changed the outcome.

It wouldn’t have. The Patriots, the better team, won and deserved it. Changing two or three details wouldn’t have changed the result.

And it wouldn’t have mattered, anyway.

Folks, the Miami Dolphins in the playoffs is not about what happened against the Patriots in the regular-season finale. This postseason, starting with the coming game at Pittsburgh, is about answering two fundamental and important questions:

Miami Dolphins head coach, Adam Gase, talks about the struggles through the 35-14 loss against the New England Patriots.

Is quarterback Ryan Tannehill going to play?

Can the Dolphins’ defense stop anybody?

And this is where I get to deliver news Dolphins fans will think is wonderful because the answer to both questions may be yes.

(That is admittedly the optimistic view because the answer to both questions might also end up being a disappointing no. Only time will tell. But my point is, there is room for hope. Nothing is absolutely being ruled out at this early stage in what will surely be a weeklong process).

So let’s handle one issue at a time. Let’s talk Tannehill first.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore talks to the media after the team's loss to the New England Patriots on Jan. 1, 2017.

You know he’s missed the past three starts and the Dolphins finished 2-1 in that span with Matt Moore at quarterback. Moore, it must be said, has done exemplary work in place of his friend. After his two-touchown performance Sunday, Moore finished the regular season with eight touchdowns and three interceptions and his 105.6 quarterback rating in limited action is actually better than Tannehill’s 93.5.

But don’t be fooled. Tannehill is the superior player when healthy and the Dolphins definitely want him playing against the Steelers if he’s healthy enough. So the process is expected to begin Monday when head coach Adam Gase talks to doctors about the possibility Tannehill can begin to practice.

“Probably,” Gase said. “Like I said before, I’m going to make the call on it. If I don’t feel comfortable with it, then Matt [Moore] will stay the starting quarterback. I need to get a lot of information: I have to see him practice and I have to see him move around and I have to feel really good about it.”

There is good news even in Gase’s caution. The Dolphins expect Tannehill to practice at least on some level this week. Depending on what happens in those practices, Gase will get an early indication where he’s going with the decision to play Tannehill or not.

If Tannehill looks tentative or seems worried about having players around his legs, the answer will be apparent that he isn’t ready to play. If, however, Tannehill shows he can move around and isn’t tentative in practice, then Gase will have another hill to climb as he decides Tannehill’s fate.

“I’m not going to jeopardize his career by throwing him out there and then extending this [injury] longer than what it already is,” Gase said. “I’m going to make sure that the right decision is made.”

None of this a definitive yes that Tannehill is playing. But neither is it a definitive no that he isn’t.

The decision is pending what happens in practice and the possibility of something good happening will surely be a lift to the team this week.

Then there’s the other issue about the Miami defense. It seems broken.

Dolphins defenders gave up 35 points against New England which was only slightly worse than the 31 points and 600 yards they allowed Buffalo the week before.

It’s not that defensive coordinator Vance Joseph doesn’t know what he’s doing or players are making mistakes. It’s simply that injuries have trimmed the talent level on this unit to the point it’s not playoff worthy anymore.

The two starting safeties Sunday -- Michael Thomas and Bacarri Rambo -- are good players but mostly as backups. And as bad as things are at safety without starters Reshad Jones and Isa Abdul-Quddus, they are worse at linebacker.

Things were so desperate Sunday the Dolphins played Mike Hull, an undrafted free agent with only one start to his credit, at weak side linebacker for a couple of series. And Hull is a middle linebacker who has never played outside.

Yet, the Dolphins have some hope the defense will get better because cornerback Byron Maxwell, out most of the past three weeks with an ankle injury, will be ready to start against Pittsburgh.

And linebacker Jelani Jenkins, who has missed three of the past four games and played only a handful of plays in the game he didn’t miss, could be sufficiently recovered from his knee injury as to let him play against the Steelers.

It will be close on Jenkins. Normally his injury takes as much as six weeks to heal. But he’s shown in his career he’s one tough man who can play even when he’s dragging a limb. And this is the playoffs we’re talking about so I’m assuming Jenkins will try to do the superhuman thing and be in the lineup at Pittsburgh.

Another reason I believe the Dolphins have a chance to contain the Steelers whereas they showed no ability to stop anyone the past few weeks?

The quarterback they’re playing is exactly the kind of quarterback they can play well against.

This defense has proven it struggles against mobile quarterbacks. Tyrod Taylor and Colin Kaepernick baffled Miami with their ability to either pass or run.

Miami Dolphins receiver Jarvis Landry talks about the team's loss to the New England Patriots on Jan. 1, 2017.

This defense has also proven it struggles against quarterbacks who get the ball out quickly. Brady did that 33 times with ease on Sunday and was sacked exactly zero times for his trouble.

Next game, however, Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is likely to wait on his receivers to get open. He’s going to want to go down the field because that’s what he does. He’s going to try to hold the ball to extend plays.

And that gives Miami’s defensive line, the strength of the defense, a chance to factor in the game. That gives Cameron Wake and Andre Branch and others a chance to help the defense. And, yes, this defense needs a lot of help right now.

So there are your early answers to the two most pressing questions the Dolphins face this week. The answers could be the difference between success and failure at Pittsburgh.

Follow Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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