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Miami Dolphins' only way to relevance is to win games in the AFC East

If you're thinking this season is already over for the Miami Dolphins because they are 2-4 and in third place in the AFC East then stop reading now.

This post is not for you.

Nothing to see here.

Move along.

Well, you've made it to the fifth paragraph so obviously you think there is still at least faint hope the Dolphins can make some noise the remainder of 2016 following last week's upset victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. Cool. I'm with you.

And that hope has a chance to blossom into full blown optimism if the Dolphins can beat the Buffalo Bills on Sunday.

Consider that the Dolphins have found a new energy and enthusiasm since their Pittsburgh victory. It was a meaningful victory because not only were players rewarded for their hard work but because coaches believe they saw the team turn a corner on this season.

What I mean by that is coaches have gotten more comfortable with their players. Players are getting more comfortable with their assignments. The Dolphins see significant progress happening and last week's game, they believe, was the first strand of evidence of that fact. So no one within the organization believes this is the same team that headed into the game against Tennessee. This is a different team, they believe.

Do I believe that? I'd like more proof because, well, this isn't the first time people in the organization share this feeling with me. And I've seen it mean nothing in the past. So let's see.

But also, let's be open to the possibility a victory over Buffalo is not impossible. LeSean McCoy, Buffalo's most explosive offensive weapon, is reportedly not playing, according to ESPN's Josina Anderson. The team's second-most explosive offensive weapon Sammy Watkins, who last season was something of a Dolphin killer, also is not playing. So there's that.

The game is in South Florida. And it's still hot down here. And the Bills are not a hot weather team. So there's that.

The Miami offensive line is healthy and about to play its second game together. Last week's showing was an epiphany of sorts for that unit. That's how eye-opening it was. The Dolphins believe that unit is the foundation for future success. So there's that.

The Bills are on a roll, no doubt. They've won four consecutive games. But, with respect, the Bills aren't to be confused with a proven ball club. The Bills are on a longer playoff drought than the Dolphins. They fired their offensive coordinator after the second game of the season and that seemed to work for them the past month, but is that going to last?

And last I checked, Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor is a good game-manager type. But he's not Tom Brady.

So all those things must be considered. And, yes, the fact the Dolphins will be without their most impactful defensive player in Reshad Jones is a problem for Miami. No doubt. Michael Thomas is a fine backup and a smart player. But Jones was starting and earned a Pro Bowl berth last season for a reason. So that hurts the Dolphins.

Now, having said all that, the Dolphins have a chance to become relevant on Sunday. If they win, it will be their first victory against an AFC East rival this season. Last season the Dolphins didn't win a game in the AFC East until the regular-season finale against New England.

Miami was 1-5 in the division last year.

If the Dolphins, who already lost to the Patriots this year, can even their division record to 1-1 and we're not done with October yet, that suggests progress and other things. Among the other things it suggests is the Dolphins will have just beaten what was considered an AFC Super Bowl contender (Pittsburgh) and the AFC East's second-best team (Buffalo) in consecutive games.

The Dolphins would then head to the bye on a positive note with a 3-4 record and come back with a home game against the reeling New York Jets before heading off to California for two games.

It is possible, if the Dolphins are right about having turned that fateful corner, this team heads to California with a 4-4 record and two wins within the division.

No, that's not quite playoff contention. But it is relevance. It is pointing toward contention. The Dolphins will be making noise at that point.

So that's the rosy, optimistic view of the world.

But what happens if the Dolphins lose to the Bills? At home? To fall to 2-5? And 0-2 within the division?

At that point this season truly is no longer about this season. At that point, it's about next year. And draft order. And maybe dumping talent before the trade deadline.


Because if the Dolphins, 1-5 in the division last year, continue to show they cannot win games against their divisional rivals, then there really is nothing to talk about because there's no road to postseason play that doesn't travel through winning division games. There just isn't. And if Miami loses to Buffalo it will be 0-2 in the division.

So this game is pivotal. This game will show whether the Dolphins simply caught the Steelers on a bad day last week or they actually found a formula for succeeding with some consistency. This game will show if the Dolphins have made progress both from earlier this season, as coaches think, and from last year when they were the AFC East doormats.

Hey, you made it to the last paragraph. I guess you're interested in what will happen Sunday.