How the surging Dolphins have evolved into a playoff contender

Miami Dolphins head coach Adam Gase

Jae C. Hong/AP

In most years, reaching Thanksgiving meant three things: football, turkey and the countdown for the New England Patriots to clinch the AFC East. Since Tom Brady missed the 2008 season, the Patriots have won their division by one, three, five, five, four, three and two games.

But this season, through Week 11, the Patriots have just a two-game lead in the AFC East over the surging Dolphins, winners of five straight games, and it could get a little tighter thanks to the coaching job done by Adam Gase and defensive coordinator Vance Joseph.

This isn’t to say the Patriots’ reign atop the AFC East is in danger, because their schedule down the stretch —€” 28th-most difficult according to FootballOutsiders.com; Miami is 19th —€” makes them the prohibitive favorite, but it could get interesting. The Dolphins have the 49ers, Ravens (away), Cardinals and Jets (away) the next four weeks. The Patriots have the Jets (away), Rams, Ravens and Broncos (away). Given the way the Dolphins tend to play close games against everyone (they are 19th with plus-2 net points), and the Patriots’ evolving issues on defense, the next month could shake out a number of different ways.

No matter what happens, Gase and Joseph should be lauded. To go from 1-€“4 and dead in the water after blowout losses to the Bengals and Titans to one game out in the wild-card race is amazing. FootballOutsiders.com has the Dolphins with the best chance (45.6%) to grab a wild-card spot by the end of the season over Denver (41.2%) and Kansas City (38.1%).

At 1-4, there were questions about whether or not quarterback Ryan Tannehill had a future, the defense was overpaid, and Gase was in over his head. And despite a 30-15 upset over the Steelers on Oct. 19, the season-ending injury to star safety Reshad Jones seemed to be the tipping point from which the Dolphins could not recover.

Quarterback Ryan Tannehill

While beating the Bills, Jets, Chargers and Rams (with a combined record 16-24) wouldn’t necessarily be considered signature wins, the way the Dolphins have played indicates that they are past their "same-old Dolphins" collapses with Tannehill at the helm in ’13 and ’14.

After the Titans loss, the Dolphins made a concerted effort to direct the offense through running back Jay Ajayi and not Tannehill. In the passing game, they dialed back the scheme to rely mostly on good run-action passes (playing to Tannehill’s strength of throwing on the run) or spreading out the field to give Tannehill a better pre-snap look. Designed shot plays were dialed up on occasion with aplomb by Gase in the perfect situation.

Give Tannehill credit as well. He’s improved in his reads and his movement in the pocket, but he’s really excelled in crunch time against the Bills, Chargers and Rams. That being said, the victory over the Rams would be Example 1A on why, after five straight wins, I’m not ready to say I was wrong to write at 1-4 that "Tannehill, for all his talents, just doesn’t have the instincts for the position. If they ever come, it will be later in his career, like Rich Gannon."

For 54 minutes against the Rams, Tannehill was back to his old tricks as he showed off everything that makes him so frustrating. He didn’t see blitzes coming or feel pressure, and failed to adjust in the pocket, leading to four sacks. There was a stretch of three straight throws in the third quarter in which Tannehill should have been intercepted (one was caught). He had another near-pick in the fourth, and he missed some easy throws. You can make all the excuses you want about offensive line injuries, the Rams being good (they’re ninth in defense at FO, so not exactly elite), and running back Damien Williams being awful in pass protection, but the fact is the good quarterbacks in the league play better in those circumstances because of their instincts for the position. Tannehill, for whatever reason, still doesn’t exhibit those traits enough.

In the next three minutes against the Rams, Tannehill was solid. The Rams went to a soft zone and Tannehill picked it apart to score the first touchdown, as he should. And then in the final three minutes, like the comeback against the Chargers, Tannehill was superb. His three throws to DeVante Parker, including the game winner with 40 seconds remaining, were all outstanding and placed perfectly against good coverage.

DeVante Parker

It was Tannehill’s fourth game-winning drive or fourth-quarter comeback of the season, which should be celebrated. It also should be pointed out that Tannehill had 10 before this season, and four in ’13, so exhibiting some clutch play is not a new development. Also, Tim Tebow, who was a Gase pupil with the Broncos, had six in ’11, and Mark Sanchez, whom current Dolphins EVP of Football Operations Mike Tannenbaum adamantly believed was a franchise quarterback, had 10 combined in ’10 and ’11. One is now playing baseball, and the other is on his fourth team in four years. I’m willing to bet Tannehill is better than both, but it goes to show that short-lived success isn’t an indicator of anything in the NFL. Tannehill will get the opportunity down the stretch and next season to show whether or not he can stack consistent success.

Joseph’s success on the defensive side of the ball, however, is more tangible and impressive. It took some time, but he’s gotten the mercurial Dolphins defensive players to buy into his scheme. A unit that was ranked 25th last year by FO (29th in passing, 20th in rushing) is now seventh (fifth vs. pass, 14th vs. rush).

On the defensive line, Joseph has found the right formula to get Ndamukong Suh, Jordan Phillips and Earl Mitchell playing in synch with outside rushers Cam Wake, Andre Branch and Mario Williams. Kiko Alonso is playing like he did with the Bills, and Joseph and defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo have worked wonders in the secondary. Byron Maxwell was thought to be done, and Xavien Howard, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain too green to be effective. With Jones, who had become an elite safety, done for the season, there was no way Isa Abdul-Quddus and Michael Thomas were going to hold up in the back end. Yet the Dolphins are playing good football in the secondary.

The Dolphins probably won’t catch the Patriots to make the season finale between the two teams an AFC East title game, but New England has probably stopped the division title countdown. The Dolphins at least have made things a lot more interesting, and for that Gase and Joseph deserve a lot of credit.

Read the rest of Greg Bedard’s notes in the original article at SI.com.

Jay Ajayi