Dolphins' playoff hopes suddenly very real as difficult stretch approaches

MIAMI -- This season was over, remember?

The Miami Dolphins were 1-7, and no NFL team has made the playoffs after being six games under .500 at any point in a season. They weren't as close to contending for an AFC East title as their 10-6 record last season suggested, and they would need drastic changes on both sides of the ball (and perhaps even on the sideline and in the front office).

But that was all before the streak. The Dolphins have gotten hot just in time to keep their playoff hopes alive, winning six straight -- including Sunday's 31-24 decision over the New York Jets -- to bring their record to 7-7 with three games left in the regular season. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, they are just the second team in NFL history to win six straight games and lose seven straight in the same season.

If they finish with a winning record, the Dolphins will become the first team in NFL history to do so after starting 1-7; and with a little help, they also can become the first such team to make the playoffs.

"We're just trying to take it one day at a time. Get better," coach Brian Flores said. "That's the approach we've taken the entire season. These guys, they play hard for one another. They work hard. ... They support one another. It's a great group to coach."

It's been an incredible turnaround for what was arguably the most disappointing team in the NFL during the first half of the season.

The Dolphins were 30th in yards per game during the first half, and they are a slightly better 20th during their winning streak. But it's what they have done on the other side of the ball that has ignited their playoff aspirations.

What was once the league's worst defense in terms of yards allowed per game now ranks second in that category over the past seven weeks. Miami's minus-57.41 defensive expected points added (EPA) ranked sixth worst in the league through the first eight weeks of the season; its 56.53 defensive EPA since Week 9 is second only to New England's 69.3.

The Dolphins made this about-face because they refused to believe what the rest of the football world had accepted after eight weeks: that their season was over.

"Just being around the guys," quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "I really think it's just the communication, just guys being in the building when we have off days. Guys wanting to work, stay back extra. I think all those play factors into our success on the field."

Miami's mission as it looks to clinch its first playoff berth since 2016 is simple: win out.

Lose on the road against either the New Orleans Saints next Monday (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) or the Tennessee Titans on Jan. 2 or at home versus the New England Patriots on Jan. 9 and Miami can start looking ahead to this offseason, because the odds of it making the playoffs will plummet.

The simplest scenario for the Dolphins is to win out while the Buffalo Bills, Cincinnati Bengals and Indianapolis Colts win their respective divisions.

None of that matters if Miami comes out flat against the Saints, like it did in Sunday's win when it trailed the Jets 10-0 in the first half.

The Dolphins' most pressing concern this week is getting star rookies Jaylen Waddle (wide receiver) and Jevon Holland (safety) back from the reserve/COVID-19 list.

"We're going to enjoy this win tonight. It was a tough one today, but our approach is the same," Flores said. "Let's prepare the right way. Let's go through our process, our weekly process. There's a lot of changes that are happening right now."