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Hyde10: Good early schedule for rehabbing Dolphins; tough finish will again decide season

Did the NFL decide the 1 p.m. game in September and early October aren’t healthy for teams from more comfortable climes? Or the heat was too much an advantage? The opener against Jacksonville is the lone 1 p.m. kickoff at Hard Rock Stadium in the first seven weeks. That time is the high-heat slot that gives the Dolphins the greatest home-field advantage in sports (yes, greater than Denver’s air or Buffalo’s cold). The second 1 p.m. game at home is in Week 8 on Oct. 27 against Arizona. So two other teams accustomed to heat, Jacksonville and Arizona, are the ones playing in South Florida at 1 p.m. in the first half of the year. The two other home games in September and October allow opponents to avoid the worst of the heat with a Thursday night game against Buffalo and a Monday night game against Tennessee. That said …

2. Bold prediction: The Dolphins start 4-1. Why? Because the opening stretch of five games before the bye week couldn’t be much better for the Dolphins. Here’s how it looks: Jacksonville, Buffalo, at Seattle, Tennessee and at New England. Remember the Dolphins are expected to be without some rehabilitating players like Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb early on so having a softer start helps them in that regard. For that matter, Weeks 1-12 schedule is the second easiest in the NFL based on Vegas win projections. Again, that’s a help for the rehab situation. In the opening five games, Buffalo is always a tough game because Josh Allen must remember the Dolphins didn’t want to draft him. Seattle is tough because it’s a long trip. But between Jacksonville being an annual disappointment and Tennessee and New England being in the midst of rebuilding jobs this is about as friendly a five games as you could draw up. It’s the fifth-easiest start of the opening five games using Vegas’s win projections for teams (the Jets have the easiest; New England is at 30th – meaning the Pats will disappear from view early on.

3. The closing stretch again will decide the Dolphins season, especially if the who-knows Jets are any good. But, again, the Dolphins should be getting some key players back by then. Look at this closing stretch at Green Bay, Jets at home, at Houston, San Francisco at home, at Cleveland and at the Jets. Houston looks ready to contend if it can survive living with success. San Francisco looks again like a NFC contender. Cold-weather night games at Cleveland on Dec. 27 and at the Jets on Jan. 5 means that December/January again will answer a lot of questions.

4. Who wants a bye week in Week 6? Then again, New England has it at the other end in Week 14. Buffalo and the New York Jets have the properly placed one in Week 12

5. Best fans’ road trip of the schedule: At New England. The shame is the Green Bay game is on Thanksgiving night considering that’s the No. 1 trip for any NFL purist to make. But scratch that trip for most people because of the timing. And I’ll throw out Seattle unless you’ve got a very long weekend because of the travel time. New England? You’ll get some fall weather on Oct. 6, get a good visit to Boston and get to see New England fans grow irate over their team’s slow start as they disappear from view for the next decade.

6. How the mighty have fallen: New England has one prime-time game, the bare minimum the NFL demands. The Dolphins have five. The Jets have five in the first 11 weeks (TV execs betting Aaron Rodgers stays healthy early) and six overall.

7. The Dolphins are tied for 24th for strength of schedule based on last year’s opponent win percentage. That’s the way most strength-of-schedule is measured in the off-season. The more accurate way is based on Vegas’s win projections for teams, as analyst Warren Sharp does it. That gives the Dolphins the eighth-easiest schedule behind Atlanta, Los Angeles Chargers, Chicago, New York Jets, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The good news: Lots of AFC teams have tough schedules. The five toughest schedules are Pittsburgh, New England, Cleveland, Minnesota and Baltimore.

8. Quick hits:

*The Dolphins are scheduled to face just one rookie quarterback and that’s assuming Drake Maye wins the New England job. They first would face him Week 5. Rookie QBs are 36-76 over the last decade in the first five weeks.

*The Jets could face three rookie quarterbacks who would be playing on the road in their first five games. In fact, from weeks two through five, the Jets face Tennessee’s Will Levis, New England’s Maye (or Jacoby Brissett), Denver’s Bo Nix (or Jarrett Stidham) and Minnesota’s J.J. McCarthy (or Sam Arnold).

Fun fact: The Dolphins haven’t finished with back-to-back games on the road since 2008 when they won the AFC East. Both games were in cold-weather sites (Kansas City and the Jets) just like this year.

9. Revenge Game of the Year: Easy one. Tennessee comes to Hard Rock Stadium again on Monday night. Last year the Dolphins had a two-touchdown lead with three minutes left and lost. That’s the game you can point to as the one that cost them home-field advantage (losing three straight to close the year didn’t help). Everyone will be tired of hearing about that last Titans game by kickoff this year.

10. Way-too-early Prediction: Dolphins finish 11-6.