LB Jerome Baker: Dolphins ‘can just feel it' that this is their year to reach the playoffs

MIAMI GARDENS — As a third-round draft choice in 2018, linebacker Jerome Baker has been a Dolphin longer than anyone other than Xavien Howard. Baker has played 79 games since then, none in the postseason.

Over the years, he has seen his team get to the playoffs’ doorstep but never beat down that door.

He knows all about the litany of lost opportunities.

Of hoping rather than believing.

Of scoreboard-watching rather than seizing.

Of lamenting rather than playing.

Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker sacks the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo.
Dolphins linebacker Jerome Baker sacks the 49ers' Jimmy Garoppolo.

As the Dolphins prepared for a Christmas Day visit by Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers, Baker said he’s certain this year won’t end with more December doldrums.

“We all believe we’re going to the playoffs,” he said. “There’s no doubt in anybody’s mind. We all truly believe that. We’re all excited to go out there Sunday and actually win. It’s not just, ‘We hope we go.’ We’re not banking on somebody else losing. We want to go out there and win it for ourselves.

“And you can just feel it.”

Website still gives Dolphins strong chance to reach postseason

The Dolphins (8-6) briefly led the AFC East this season, but after losing three straight road games, they have fallen to seventh in the AFC, still owning the final playoff slot while New England, Jacksonville and the Jets are on the outside looking in. still gives the Dolphins a 78% chance of making the playoffs. It will inch up to 86% with a win over the Packers. In short, the Dolphins control the playoff race and can clinch a berth by winning two of their final three games, or even winning one with a bit of help. It’s only with losses to Green Bay and at New England next weekend that odds begin to tilt against Miami.

The Packers (8-6) have risen to 10th in the NFC on the basis of a two-game winning streak. They know they might have to win out to reach the postseason. It’s a virtual certainty this will be the final time Rodgers, who just turned 39, will face Miami. It won’t be the Aaron Rodgers that Dolphins fans are used to seeing. Rodgers hasn’t had a 300-yard passing day all season. He has thrown three touchdown passes in a game only once. Even during this modest win streak, he has averaged 205.5 yards, with a total of two TD passes.

But he’s still Aaron Rodgers. There’s still a mystique.

“This is Aaron Rodgers we’re talking about,” safety Jevon Holland said. “It’s AR-12. He’s the guy. I’m excited, definitely. It’s Aaron Rodgers, bro. Discount double-check. The whole cheesehead thing.”

Nobody has to tell fullback Alec Ingold, who grew up minutes from Lambeau Field and went through multiple cheeseheads growing up.

“The dude is a superstar,” Ingold said. “It’s really cool to be able to share a field with that guy.”

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said it’s “special” knowing who his counterpart is.

“I like seeing good football regardless of what it is,” Tagovailoa said. “Obviously, we always want to win. But man, I turn into a fan at times just sitting back and watching whether our defense is going off or the opposing team makes a couple plays. It’s cool to see. But having to go against someone like him and seeing him across the field ever since watching him on TV growing up, it will be awesome.”

Just not as good as experiencing a playoff game for himself and his team. For those looking ahead, after proving they can be competitive in frigid conditions in Buffalo last weekend, the Dolphins are on track to visit Kansas City in the first round of the playoffs. Tagovailoa vs. Patrick Mahomes. Tyreek Hill vs. old team. The Dolphins’ first playoff game in K.C. since the epic 27-24 overtime win in 1971 — the longest game in NFL history.

Dolphins have been disappointed by close calls before

First, there’s that hump to get past. After a playoff appearance in 2016, the Dolphins could have clinched a berth the next season by winning their final three games. Then they lost to Buffalo. Twice. Sandwiched around that, they also lost at Kansas City. They finished 6-10. The next season, a virtual rerun. After beating New England 34-33 to improve to 7-6 — you might remember the final play of that game — the Dolphins likely would have earned a berth but again finished on a three-game skid, falling at Minnesota and Buffalo and home vs. Jacksonville. Even a 10-6 record in Baker’s third season wasn’t enough.

“We know what’s at stake,” Baker said. “You don’t want to look up in the offseason and we’re on vacation. (Or lamenting) ‘Oh, we had a good team. It could have been.’ No, this is our opportunity. We’re at that moment right now. We’ve really got to lock in and get it done.”

In a twisted way, could it relieve pressure on these streaky Dolphins that they’ve already gotten their three-game losing streak out of the way?

“We know we dropped three games,” linebacker Bradley Chubb said. “We know it wasn’t our best football. We know we did great things in those games, but it just wasn’t enough. We know who we are. We know the team we are. Adversity makes the best out of everybody, so it’s been fun.”

Hill, for one, knows what it’s like to be a perennial playoff contender, a playoff winner and even a Super Bowl champion. He, too, doesn’t believe the season will end when the regular season does.

“We’ve got the talent,” Hill said. “We have one of the swaggiest coaches in the league. And we have one of the most accurate quarterbacks in the league. Everybody believes. Nobody has lost faith. We’re just going to continue to keep rolling and keep chopping this wood.”

Baker gets the last word: “This team is ready to go.”

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Dolphins LB Jerome Baker, on playoffs: ‘This team is ready to go'