Dolphins make December meaningful again

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the Miami Dolphins could be headed towards a playoff run. Steve Mitchell/US Presswire

MIAMI -- The Miami Dolphins will have a meaningful December game next week against the reigning AFC champion New England Patriots.

Let that sink in for a second.

The Dolphins have come a long way in just a few short months. That was evident on Sunday when Miami pulled off a 24-21 upset victory over the Seattle Seahawks (6-5) at Sun Life Stadium. Miami improved to 5-6 and, at the very least, set the table for an interesting final month of the season.

It has been a crazy roller-coaster ride for Miami that started in July and was documented during HBO’s “Hard Knocks” series. Four months later, that same Miami team that was a national laughingstock in the summer finds itself in the thick of the wild-card race in late fall.

Many, including the AFC East blog, picked Miami to finish last in the division. Instead, the Dolphins are just one game behind the Pittsburgh Steelers (6-5) and Cincinnati Bengals (6-5) for the sixth seed in the AFC. Miami beat Cincinnati earlier this year and owns the head-to-head tiebreaker if it came down to it.

How did this happen?

It starts with character and toughness. The Dolphins might lack talent on paper, but they make up for it with effort and a no-quit attitude most weeks on the field. All of that was on display during Sunday's come-from-behind win.

“I think you’re going to have growth when you put in as much work as we do,” Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said. “If you’re not growing and you’re not making improvements, then a lot of that work is being wasted. It just shows we’re taking that work from the practice field to the game.”

Whether these young Dolphins make the playoffs is insignificant. The accomplishment is merely getting to this point.

The Dolphins are playing with house money in the final five weeks. No one expects Miami to make the postseason, especially with its brutal upcoming schedule. If the Dolphins do make it, that would be icing on their cake.

But this once-downtrodden franchise proved in the first 11 games that Miami is back on the upswing. The turnaround won’t happen overnight, but you can steadily see more and more seeds for success being planted.

This week’s lesson was handling adversity.

After losing three straight, the Dolphins trailed by a touchdown late in the fourth quarter and could have accepted a fourth straight loss. Instead, Miami showed its resilience by scoring 10 unanswered points in the final eight minutes to win a tough game.

“Character is built through experiences like having a three-game losing streak,” Dolphins linebacker Karlos Dansby said. “[Sunday] showed our resolve. We played well and we came out and played together.”

The Dolphins can go only as far as rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill takes them. Many didn’t think Tannehill would play at all in his rookie season. But he won his fifth start Sunday and passed Hall of Famer Dan Marino for the most passing yards (2,373) by a Miami rookie.

Tannehill outdueled fellow rookie Russell Wilson by throwing for 253 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Tannehill saved his best for a seven-play, 70-yard drive in the final 1:32 of the game.

Tannehill was 3-for-5 on the final drive and rushed for 15 yards to keep Miami marching down the field. He moved the Dolphins to Seattle’s 29-yard line to set up Dan Carpenter’s 43-yard winning field goal.

“With Tannehill back there at quarterback, we have so much confidence that he will win us the game,” Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said. “And that’s why, no matter what happens, we win or we lose, we’re always going to believe in him because he’s a great football player.”

Miami’s magic carpet ride probably won’t last long. The Patriots, who have won five straight, are coming to town as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. New England is averaging 47.5 points in its past four games.

Miami doesn’t have the firepower or talent to compete with New England, which is undefeated against the AFC East this season. It will take a near-perfect performance by the Dolphins to pull off this kind of monumental upset.

But Sunday’s come-from-behind win against a solid Seattle team -- which beat New England this year -- certainly raised a few eyebrows. The Dolphins will enter the Week 13 game with a lot of confidence.

"When you look at it, every game is a playoff game from now on," Dolphins linebacker Kevin Burnett said. "Now is the time, and this is it. … We are tough. You have to play dang-near flawless to beat us."