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  Improvement Within Division Vital to Playoff Chances
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In the NFL, making the playoffs is predicated on winning the majority of intra-divisional games. It is the foundation of a solid playoff system that identifies the best teams for the postseason tournament.


In the last five years, only seven teams have made the playoffs while winning half or fewer of their divisional games (2002: Cleveland; 2004: NY Jets, Denver, Minnesota, Seattle; 2006: Indianapolis, Dallas). That’s a success rate of just 12% (7 of 60 playoff berths). Only one (Indianapolis, 2006) won the Super Bowl.


So it isn’t mere coincidence that the Dolphins have missed the playoffs five years running, given their terrible divisional record during that time (11-19, .367).


Even in the years when the Dolphins were close to making the cut, late season divisional losses to the Patriots stymied them.


In 2003 the 10-6 Dolphins, sporting an overall 4-2 divisional record, missed the playoffs. Remember them? The difference was a devastating 0-12 loss at New England late in the season that left them 0-2 vs. NE in the head-to-head tiebreaker.


Fast forward to 2005. Those Dolphins won half of their divisional games and missed the playoffs by one game, a divisional loss at home to the Pats (16-23).


If the Dolphins are to get off their postseason schneid, winning at least four of their divisional games will be critical. But earning at least one win from the Patriots will probably be a factor as well.


The Dolphins have managed to split with the Pats the past three years running. It will be a tall order to for them to keep this string going, given all of the talent the Patriots have accumulated this past offseason.


Bottom line is that the Patriots remain the more talented team. That’s a fact.


The big “however” here is that QB Tom Brady struggles against the Dolphin D, and the biggest reason for that is Jason Taylor. Last I checked, Matt Light is still playing left tackle for the Pats, and JT has owned him in recent years. As long as JT owns Light, the Dolphin D can have success against Brady. And, with the addition of LB Joey Porter, it will be much harder for the Pats to slide their protection towards JT.


You get the point: Randy Moss is just window dressing if Brady is flat on his back.


The same can be said for Laveranues Coles relative to Chad Pennington, though things are always less predictable when it comes to the pesky New York Jets. The Jets are the only divisional foe against whom the Dolphins have a losing record (39-43-1). In fact, the Dolphins have lost five of the past six.


It seems as though the Dolphins continue to find new and depressing ways to blow games against the Jets. Last season, both losses were close defensive struggles (3 point losses), with the Jet offense able to make a play or two more than the Dolphin offense.


This has to change if the Dolphins are going to make the playoffs.


For the most part, the Jets have decided to stand pat on offense, with the acquisition of RB Thomas Jones being the major upgrade.


This math suggests that the Dolphin defense will continue to contain the Jet offense. One questions whether or not the Dolphin offense will be far enough along by Week 3 to be effective in the Meadowlands.


Now if the Dolphins can at least split their series with the Jets, and get a win at home against the Pats on October 21… a key milepost towards the playoffs…then sweeping the Bills would put them in excellent position for a playoff berth.


Fortunately for the Dolphins, they won’t see the Bills until Week 10. By then, the re-tooled offense should be mature. This is important because Buffalo’s defense suffocated the pathetic Dolphin offense in both match-ups last year, allowing a mere 6 points in total to be scored against them.


This time around, the Dolphins figure to fare better.


Last season, Buffalo’s run defense was one of the most generous in the NFL (140.9 yards per game). There’s little reason to believe things will be any better for them this time around. Outside of rookie LB Paul Pozluszny (who replaces London Fletcher-Baker) , they were unable to add any major new talent to their front seven, though they do get 2006 first round DT John McCargo back from a season-ending injury. However, the loss of Nate Clements, a crack shutdown corner, will no doubt be felt.


Common sense dictates that the Dolphin offense will improve against the Bills defense for two reasons: 1) the Dolphins simply cannot play worse against them than they did last season, and 2) Buffalo’s defense will be more vulnerable with the loss of Clements.


Even though the Dolphin D will be at least as good as last year, Buffalo’s offense can still score against them. So it stands to reason that Dolphins-Bills will continue to be a defensive struggle, decided mostly by big plays.


Every divisional game is precious. There is little room for error.


For example, assume that the Dolphins upset the Patriots at home on October 21 and split with the Jets. If the Dolphins split with the Bills, their quest for the playoffs gets a lot tougher because they would likely have to win in New England on December 23 to make the playoffs.


Not saying they can’t, but that’s the hard road. Not that winning in Buffalo in December is the easy road, but if the Dolphins stumble there they might have to cast their playoff lot in snowy Foxborough just before Christmas.


Not exactly an appealing proposition.


Again, it is way too early to know precisely how the Dolphins will fare against their divisional foes. We just know that they must get back to winning more than they lose within the AFC East if they want to be playing football in January.





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