Quick Sunday night update: Before tonight, the Dolphins needed a Baltimore loss to have any chance to make the playoffs. But after Pittsburgh beat Cincinnati tonight, the Dolphins now control their own destiny and will make the playoffs if they win Sunday at Buffalo and the following week at home against the Jets.
Here's why: If the Dolphins win out, they would finish 10-6. If the Ravens win out, they would also be 10-6. But since the Ravens play at the Bengals in their finale, a Baltimore win in that game would mean the Bengals would finish no better than 10-6, even if the Bengals beat visiting Minnesota next Sunday.
In that scenario, if the Ravens and Bengals both finish 10-6, Baltimore would win the AFC North because the Ravens would have swept Cincinnati, and Miami would win a tiebreaker with Cincinnati for a wild card spot based on beating the Bengals on Halloween.
Meanwhile, if the Ravens lose once (to either Detroit on the road or home against New England or at Cincinnati), then the Ravens would finish with 7 losses. Miami, by winning out, would have only 6 losses. And the 7-7 Chargers cannot catch the Dolphins if the Dolphins win out.
If Baltimore and Cincinnati tie in their finale, the Ravens could then finish with no more than 9 wins (even if they beat the Lions and Patriots in the next seven days). The Dolphins would have 10 if they win out.
The Dolphins can win the AFC East only if they win out and the Patriots lose to Baltimore and at home against Buffalo.
SUNDAY BUZZ COLUMN
In sports, what happened most recently often carries disproportionate weight over everything before it. So the result Sunday against a New England team that has dominated the Dolphins assuredly will skew perception. And it should to an extent, because at some point the Dolphins will need to get past Brady & Belichick to get where they want to go.
But know this: From talking to people around the league, there’s clearly more optimism about this team’s long-term potential than we're accustomed to in recent Decembers. No, we’re not talking Super Bowl-optimism, not with this offensive line, the unknown variable of Ryan Tannehill’s ceiling and other issues.
But when you combine the talent assembled, the improvement of Tannehill and several other key young players, the portent of at least $38 million in cap space this offseason and other factors, “I see no reason why the future isn’t bright,” ESPN analyst and former Colts general manager Bill Polian said last week.
“They have a good defense already. If you’re going to go far, you need pass rushers and they have that. The running game is good now and will get better as the offensive line gets better. It’s a good group of talent in the passing game. Tannehill is right on schedule. Fixing the offensive line is not as hard as you think. If you get the tackle situation squared away, you can manufacture guards.”
Another former GM, Charley Casserly, also told me the Dolphins now look like long-term playoff contenders: “I would be optimistic. I like the moves they made, and they have a nucleus to work with. Tannehill is an above average quarterback. I like their long-term prospects better than the Jets and Bills because it starts with the quarterback, and I have a lot more confidence in Tannehill than Geno Smith or E.J. Manuel.”
Said CBS analyst Phil Simms, by phone: “I would be encouraged about their future. But the difference between making the playoffs and going to the Super Bowl is dramatic. There is a long way to go. But at least it’s a start. They are a fast team. They have some great elements that do well in the NFL.”
More reason for hope: The Dolphins have just $106 million in cap commitments (including dead money) for 2014, well under the projected cap of $126 million. They also have about $18 million in unused 2013 cap space that can be carried over.
That adds up to $38 million in space for this upcoming offseason, and they can clear even more space if they cut Dimitri Patterson (which would be a $5.4 million saving) or ask him to take a pay cut after he played in only five games. (I'm not endorsing that, because Patterson was very good when he played, but his inability to recover from a groin injury raises questions about whether Miami will want to pay him that much.) They also could clear space by restructuring Mike Wallace’s contract to reduce his 2014 cap number from $17.2 million.
They should have enough to re-sign Brent Grimes and either Randy Starks or Paul Soliai; re-sign Nolan Carroll and either Chris Clemons or another safety; add an offensive tackle and guard that aren’t obscenely expensive; maybe sign Dustin Keller to a low-money deal if he’s healthy, add some depth and pay draft picks.
Miami then could use early-round draft picks, hypothetically, on two offensive linemen and to replenish defensive tackle depth if Soliai or Starks leaves.
Using the franchise tag on either Grimes (the cornerback tag cost next season is projected to be $11.2 million) or Soliai ($8.8 million range) or Starks (similar range) are also decent possibilities.
Astute former Browns scout Matt Williamson, of ESPN’s Scouts Inc., also sees Miami now in position to be a playoff contender for years.
“I am more encouraged by their future than before the preseason,” he said. “They have three good edge pass rushers. Grimes is a top five to 10 corner. I don’t see a ton of needs except offensive line.
“Can you rebuild your offensive line in one offseason, where you need three or four starters? That’s going to be difficult, but you can dedicate a draft to that. John Jerry is fine as your fifth guy. Tannehill will be in the franchise quarterback group of guys.... that you can win a Super Bowl with. There’s a lot more bust potential with Robert Griffin than Tannehill.”
Tannehill has thrown 20 touchdowns (tied for 11th in the NFL) compared with 14 picks, has a decent 84 rating (still in the bottom half but just narrowly behind Andrew Luck and seven points better than Joe Flacco) and is ninth in completions, 10th in yards and 15th in completion percentage.
“There’s no doubt Tannehill is improving right before our eyes,” said Simms, who works Sunday’s game for CBS. “There is a different presence with him, a little bit of an aura. You can tell he’s the man. He’s throwing with more confidence.”
### The league confirmed the Dolphins’ 2014 out-of-division schedule, and it’s challenging. Home: Kansas City, San Diego, Green Bay, Minnesota and the comparable finisher in the AFC North. Away: Denver, Chicago, Detroit, the comparable finisher in the AFC South and Oakland in London.
### Another sign of coach Joe Philbin being looser with his players this season: After Grimes started “trash talking” Philbin about how he could beat the coach in table tennis, Philbin last week picked up a racket and beat Grimes in a game, with players looking on and offering commentary.
“I said I would spike the ball on him, and then I folded under the lights,” Grimes said.
People outside the locker-room don’t see that side of Philbin, but Grimes said: “He’s got a personality. You just have to bring it out of him.”
### A close associate of Jonathan Martin insists that contrary to a network report, he has turned over all text messages requested of him by investigator Ted Wells. That ESPN report was retracted.... NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told the New York Times that he expects the Dolphins' bullying scandal will result in new NFL workplace rules this offseason. Stephen Ross already has appointed a committee to formulate workplace rules for the Dolphins; Tony Dungy, one of the committee members, said they will begin work on that project after the season.
### UM junior defensive end Anthony Chickillo submitted his paperwork to the NFL Draft advisory board, according to a family member, and will make a decision about his future after the bowl game.
Junior linebacker Denzel Perryman has not submitted paperwork yet, his father said, but might at some point. He has said he won't decide whether to turn pro until after the season.
“I think he should stay another year and I think he will,” Desmond Perryman said. “He knows I kind of know what I’m talking about. He had a good season [but] he has room for improvement. He’s not the tallest linebacker in college and a lot of people will be reluctant to take him early because of his size [6-0].”
### UM named Allen Hurns its team MVP, Brandon Linder its offensive MVP and Perryman its defensive MVP in its awards banquet tonight... West Palm Beach Dwyer coach Jack Daniels told The Palm Beach Post that Ohio State is "probably in the lead" for four-star receiver Johnnie Dixon, whom UM covets. Dixon planned to announce last Sunday but delayed his decision.
### Erik Spoelstra has months to decide, but with Miami again last in the league in rebounding, the question remains about whom to start at power forward alongside the Big Three and Mario Chalmers. Undersized Shane Battier, championship-tested in that role, shot 11 of 35 with eight rebounds in his past eight games heading into Saturday.
And though Battier’s presence allows the Heat to spread the floor, Chris Bosh said that when Battier, 6-8, tried to defend Indiana’s 7-2 Roy Hibbert for a stretch Tuesday, “you couldn’t see him after Hibbert caught the ball.”
With Battier playing alongside the four definite starters, the Heat has outscored teams by nine points in 114 minutes. Conversely, Miami is plus-7 with Rashard Lewis (23 minutes) alongside Chalmers and the Big Three; minus-11 with Udonis Haslem (48 minutes); and minus-seven with Michael Beasley (14 minutes).
Spoelstra refused to say whether he would ever consider starting Beasley, who remains out with a hamstring injury. His scoring is more valuable on the second unit, but his rebounding would help the first unit, considering he’s second on the team behind Chris Andersen in rebounds per 48 minutes.
Bosh said that in a starting lineup with Beasley: “The speed and athleticism and decision making and scoring ability would really put pressure on teams.” The question is whether Spoelstra will be motivated to experiment with that lineup later in the season.
### A Seattle official said the Marlins “came to us about trading Logan Morrison for [reliever] Carter Capps, not the other way around” and added the Mariners really liked his arm and upside, despite his difficulty with left-handed hitters (.321 career average).
Capps has struck out 94 in 84 big-league innings but allowed 98 hits and 34 walks. Capps, who said he has thrown as fast as 102 miles per hour, allowed a ridiculous 12 homers in 59 innings last season. But the Marlins have identified a flaw in his delivery and plan to correct it.
### Besides calling to express interest in Casey McGehee and internally discussing Wilson Betemit as a third base option, the Marlins also reportedly have inquired about Eric Chavez. They have had some contact with Yuniesky Betancourt in the past few weeks, as well, as they move toward filling their most glaring need.
### Please see the previous post from Saturday for more Dolphins, Canes and Beckham/Miami/MLS information.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz