The Miami Dolphins played the Cleveland Browns in Miami on Sept. 25. And the Dolphins should have lost.
The Browns used an emergency kicker after their regular kicker got hurt in practice that Friday. Cody Parkey, the last-minute replacement, missed three field goals in regulation, including one on the final play. The game went to overtime and the Dolphins escaped with a win.
Again, the Dolphins lucked out to get an overtime win at home against a Browns team that is 0-14 and hasn’t lost by fewer than 13 points since October. And that was the Dolphins’ only win through five games. At 1-4, with that lone win against the Browns, the Dolphins looked like a contender for the No. 1 overall pick, not the playoffs.
The NFL can change without warning. Usually huge changes happen season to season, like the Carolina Panthers, Arizona Cardinals and Denver Broncos can tell you. The teams are evenly matched for the most part, and so many games are decided in the final minutes by a bounce here or there. That’s why variance should be expected. But the Dolphins’ 2016 variance is extreme.
Miami has won eight of nine and if the season ended today, the Dolphins would be the sixth seed in the AFC playoffs. There weren’t any signs this was coming. They were competitive Week 1 at the Seattle Seahawks, though the offense scored just 10 points. They were trailing the Patriots 31-3 – with the Patriots using quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, then Jacoby Brissett after Garoppolo was injured – before a late rally. The Browns win was followed by a 15-point loss to the Bengals and a 13-point home loss to the Titans. You had to squint really, really hard to see any signs of life from the Dolphins.
Then they turned into a different team. They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers at home and away they went. Ryan Tannehill seemed like he suddenly got first-year coach Adam Gase’s offense. Jay Ajayi, who had shown practically nothing in a year-plus in the NFL, rushed for 200 yards in back-to-back games. The receivers made plays. The defense played better, and somehow didn’t seem to miss do-everything safety Reshad Jones after his injury. Then when Tannehill went down with a knee injury, Matt Moore came out of the bullpen and threw four touchdowns in a road win over the New York Jets.
Gase deserves plenty of credit. He kept the team together despite an awful start. He probably learned some lessons himself. All of a sudden his offense started working as we’d seen it work when he was coordinator with the Broncos and then the Bears. If there were any concerns about Gase as a head coach after five games – and it wouldn’t have been unfair to have some – they’ve been erased now.
The Dolphins had a good Week 15. Not only did they win, the Broncos’ loss was big for them too. The Dolphins, amazingly enough, can clinch a playoff berth in Week 16 with a win over the Bills and a Broncos’ loss at the Chiefs. Miami also is guaranteed a spot if it wins out (the Miami Herald had a full explanation of the Dolphins’ playoff clinching scenarios).
Maybe the Dolphins’ turnaround doesn’t seem unbelievable because just last year we saw the Chiefs go from 1-5 to a playoff spot. But the Dolphins’ turnaround is just as amazing, especially with a rookie head coach.
Here are the power rankings after Week 15 of the NFL season:
32. Cleveland Browns (0-14, Last week: 32)
This is an amazing stat: Even though we’ve known since before the season that the Browns were probably the worst team in football, and Las Vegas doesn’t like giving away money, the Browns have covered the spread only two of 14 times, according to OddsShark. They haven’t covered since Oct. 16. No matter how high oddsmakers set the point spread for Browns games, Cleveland still can’t beat the line.
31. San Francisco 49ers (1-13, LW: 31)
Chip Kelly has lost 13 in a row, and many reasons for that streak are out of his control. But does it seem like the 49ers are getting better under him? When Colin Kaepernick talked about how the culture of the team needs to change, that has to reflect back to Kelly. I want Kelly to succeed in the NFL, because I hate that the league is always so strongly against trying anything different, but I’m not sure it’s going to happen.
30. Jacksonville Jaguars (2-12, LW: 30)
The Jaguars apparently have some interest in talking to Tom Coughlin about their vacant head-coaching job, but I don’t know that Coughlin is the right answer. It seems like reaching back to a happier time in team history, even though Coughlin’s last Jaguars season was 2002. They need someone who can fix Blake Bortles (though that can be done through a good offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, of course), and someone who can build the Jaguars over the long term. Can Coughlin, who will be 71 next season, be that guy?
29. New York Jets (4-10, LW: 29)
The Jets are going to draft another quarterback, aren’t they? Counting back to 2013 they’ve used a second-round pick on Geno Smith, a fourth on Bryce Petty and a second on Christian Hackenberg and they have nothing to show for it.
28. Los Angeles Rams (4-10, LW: 27)
Greg Robinson ranks 72nd among 79 graded offensive tackles by Pro Football Focus. If he weren’t a former second overall pick, he’d probably be a free agent now.
27. Chicago Bears (3-11, LW: 28)
Matt Barkley threw for 362 yards in frigid conditions Sunday, but he also threw three interceptions. He has looked good at times and all young quarterbacks have the opportunity to grow with experience. But I’m not sure the Bears should start thinking he’s the long-term answer.
26. Philadelphia Eagles (5-9, LW: 26)
You’d rather have Carson Wentz play well from beginning to end, but it was a good sign that he hung in there and led the Eagles to a late touchdown against a tough Ravens defense, scoring on a nice run with four seconds left. The Eagles were right to go for the two-point conversion, too. It just didn’t work out. But the final drive was a positive at the end of an otherwise rough day for Wentz.
25. San Diego Chargers (5-9, LW: 25)
Their motivation this week is to not be the team that loses to the 2016 Cleveland Browns. We’ll see how far that takes them.
24. Cincinnati Bengals (5-8-1, LW: 23)
Over the last three weeks, Jeremy Hill has had a 23-carry, 33-yard game and a 20-carry, 43-yard game. The Bengals need to upgrade at tailback.
23. Arizona Cardinals (5-8-1, LW: 22)
On Sunday, David Johnson became the first NFL player to gain 100 yards from scrimmage in each of his first 14 games of a season. He is having an unbelievable year. And really, Johnson’s great season makes the Cardinals’ record seem that much more disappointing.
22. Carolina Panthers (6-8, LW: 24)
Luke Kuechly was cleared in the concussion protocol but the Panthers didn’t play him on Monday night. And that is 100 percent the right move. We should not see him on an NFL field again until next preseason.
21. Minnesota Vikings (7-7, LW: 16)
The Vikings’ chances of making the playoffs are down to 2 percent, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s projections. All of the stuff above about the Dolphins and how amazing it is that their season turned so dramatically after five games? That’s all true about the Vikings too, just in reverse.
20. New Orleans Saints (6-8, LW: 21)
Brandin Cooks showed off his playmaking skills in a 186-yard game Sunday. We all know he has that type of ability. So why have those games come so infrequently for Cooks this season?
19. Indianapolis Colts (7-7, LW: 20)
The Colts really needed the Chiefs and/or Jaguars to hang on. As is, they’re still a game back and need to win out, have the Texans go 0-2 and the Titans lose to the Jaguars this week but beat the Texans in Week 17, if the Colts want to win the AFC South (Stampede Blue has the scenarios). Good luck.
18. Houston Texans (8-6, LW: 19)
DeAndre Hopkins must feel reborn. After getting five catches for 91 yards on 12 targets the previous two games combined, Hopkins had 17 targets, eight catches and 87 yards Sunday, mostly with Tom Savage at quarterback. Savage seems to understand that even when Hopkins is covered, just throw him the ball.
17. Buffalo Bills (7-7, LW: 18)
The only silver lining for the Bills when they get eliminated from the playoffs is being able to shut Sammy Watkins down. He’s obviously not fully healthy and they don’t want him suffering an injury that ruins his offseason.
16. Washington Redskins (7-6-1, LW: 11)
Not all is lost after Monday night’s disappointing loss. They play at the Bears this week, then at home against a Giants team that might have its seed clinched in Week 17. But Monday’s loss, against a Panthers team that was eliminated from the playoffs Sunday, was tough to explain.
15. Tennessee Titans (8-6, LW: 17)
Marcus Mariota’s fourth-and-5 throw to DeMarco Murray was a sign of how far along he is as a quarterback. It was a strong, confident back-shoulder throw to the correct matchup, and without it the Titans don’t win Sunday. Mariota’s improvement this season isn’t getting enough attention. He has been fantastic.
14. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (8-6, LW: 12)
Doug Martin has played eight games this season. In five of those games he has averaged less than 3 yards per carry, and he hasn’t averaged more than 3.8 in any game. His career is a weird study: great rookie season, then two awful seasons, All-Pro in his fourth season, 2.9 yards per carry his fifth season.
13. Denver Broncos (8-6, LW: 10)
Gary Kubiak didn’t sound concerned over a reported argument in the locker room between the team’s defensive backs and offensive linemen. “It’s OK to be upset,” Kubiak said. “There’s pain in what we do and you put a lot into it. There’s no division. That’s battling and that’s part of football.” That’s true; emotions can run hot in football. And one yelling match doesn’t indicate the team is broken – the Seahawks do it out in the open, and they’re fine. But the situation is worth monitoring. It could get worse if the Broncos’ season doesn’t turn around.
12. Detroit Lions (9-5, LW: 8)
If you told the Lions before the season that no matter what happens this week, their worst-case scenario for Week 17 is playing the Packers at home for the NFC North title, they’d have signed up for that right away. But the way they’re arriving at that showdown makes it seem like a bad ending to this fun story is inevitable.
11. Miami Dolphins (9-5, LW: 15)
The Dolphins’ schedule isn’t easy the rest of the way. They play at the Bills this week, and while that game looks winnable, remember how much joy the Bills took in ruining the Jets’ playoff hopes in Week 17 last season. Then it’s onto Week 17 against the Patriots, and New England might need to win that game to get a No. 1 seed. So the Dolphins aren’t out of the woods yet.
10. Baltimore Ravens (8-6, LW: 14)
It’s concerning that the Ravens had to fade a two-point conversion in the final seconds to beat the Eagles at home. But a win is a win and all that matters now is what happens on Christmas at the Steelers.
9. Green Bay Packers (8-6, LW: 13)
In our weekly awards rankings, I wondered last week if Aaron Rodgers could steal the MVP. The answer, after an MVP moment late in that Bears win, is yes. It will be easy for voters to cast a ballot for him.
8. New York Giants (10-4, LW: 9)
Everyone seems to be buying into the Giants as a Super Bowl sleeper because of things that happened in 2007 and 2011 but that doesn’t matter in 2016. The defense, however, is playing well. They’ll have to get the offense going though before I buy in.
7. Pittsburgh Steelers (9-5, LW: 7)
Steelers vs. Ravens on Christmas with the AFC North practically on the line is as good as NFL regular-season football can get. What an awesome matchup.
6. Atlanta Falcons (9-5, LW: 6)
The last two weeks, without the great Julio Jones, the Falcons have scored 42 and 41 points. There will be a long line of NFL teams wanting to hire Atlanta offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan as their next head coach.
5. Kansas City Chiefs (10-4, LW: 3)
It’s hard to rip a team too much for a last-second loss and call it a terrible loss after it has won eight of nine. But that was a terrible loss on Sunday to Tennessee. It could be the difference between a first-round bye and a home game and having to go on the road for wild-card weekend.
4. Seattle Seahawks (9-4-1, LW: 5)
The Seahawks have tried to give away the second seed in the NFC, but nobody else wants it. Now Seattle is back in the No. 2 spot with a home game against Arizona and a road game against San Francisco remaining. There’s no reason for them to not end up with a first-round bye.
3. Oakland Raiders (11-3, LW: 4)
The road to a division title still isn’t easy. If they beat the Colts at home this week, Week 17 at Denver should be tough. And the Chiefs still have the tiebreaker. But the pendulum swung the Raiders’ direction in a big way Sunday when the Titans hit that last-second field goal at Kansas City.
2. New England Patriots (12-2, LW: 2)
The defense is coming on. It has forced eight turnovers the last four weeks and hasn’t given up more than 17 first downs in four straight games. It seems Jamie Collins’ departure didn’t matter.
1. Dallas Cowboys (12-2, LW: 1)
The Cowboys shouldn’t be depending on Randy Gregory at this point. But the talented pass rusher’s suspension is over, and maybe his return can provide an unexpected bonus for Dallas’ defense. It can’t hurt.
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