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  Playoff Run Begins Now
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by Chris Shashaty, Phins.com Columnist

Click Here To Contact Chris


Hold the smelling salts. I am not delirious.





Yes, playoffs.


With a big win over the Atlanta Falcons this weekend (1pm ET, FOX), the Dolphins will climb back to .500 and position themselves for a realistic shot at a playoff berth.


And, if the Indianapolis Colts can defeat the now vulnerable New England Patriots, the Dolphins would be tied for first place in the AFC East.


Such a prospect at the start of the season would have been almost unthinkable to anyone but a real homer. Yet here we are facing that very prospect in, as ESPN’s Chris Berman would say, “Week 9 of the National…Football…League”.


Given the injuries that key rivals have suffered, consider that 10-6 could very well be good enough to get in. For the Dolphins, assuming they defeat the Falcons, that means a 6-2 run over the back eight.


If we look at how this team played during the first half of the year, with very winnable games against the Jets and Bills, the Dolphins have already demonstrated that they have enough talent to do it.


Away games at San Diego (Dec. 11), Oakland (Nov. 27) and New England (Jan. 1) loom as tough tests. Still, the overall record of Miami’s opponents during that backstretch is currently a dismal 20-32 (.385).


The key to all this is getting past Atlanta because, realistically, any team at 3-5 at the turn is pretty much done.


So how can the Dolphins pull this job off? How do they make the playoffs a reality?


Offensively, the key will be the newly named “R & R” combination of Ricky Williams and Ronnie Brown. Their combined ability to carry the ball over 40 times a game will pose a major stamina problem for teams, especially as the season progresses and they (and their beleaguered offensive line…more on them in a moment) continue to improve.


Keep in mind that, of the teams the Dolphins play on the back stretch, only San Diego and Tennessee have run defenses ranked in the top half of the league (statistically).


Thus, look for the Dolphins to play more ball control and wear teams out in the fourth quarter.


Also look for offensive coordinator Scott Linehan to continue to explore ways to get Ricky and Ronnie on the field at the same time. We’ve seen that, indeed, Brown is a very dangerous threat in passing game; a big guy with legitimate wide receiver speed that even safeties have had some trouble guarding.


As for the offensive line, it is apparent that they are currently better run blockers than they are pass blockers. This is a good thing in the sense that line coach extraordinaire Hudson Houck now has them good at something.


As for the passing game, Linehan will stay true to his convictions by continuing to take deep shots. At various points, you have to expect that the odds will tip in the Dolphins’ favor as teams load up to stop R & R.


And yes, the Dolphins ought to stay with Gus Frerotte for as long as he is healthy and continues to protect the Dolphins from game-killing plays. His maturity, poise, and knowledge of the offense are desperately needed at this time.


Defensively, it is and will continue to be about the creativity and sheer brilliance of Nick Saban and his defensive staff. It helps immensely to have some mature veteran players in their front seven, guys like Kevin Carter, Keith Traylor, Jason Taylor, Vonnie Holliday, Jeff Zgonina, Zach Thomas, and Junior Seau. Those players know the game so well that they can pull off the more complex approaches that Saban favors and, quite frankly, must use to hide the weaknesses this unit has.


Traylor may very well be the key to the whole defense. He has pulled off the unexpected in making people forget about the loss of Tim Bowens and Larry Chester. His latest demonstration against the Saints was overpowering and destructive as he single-handedly ruined their offensive continuity.


Simply put, he’s the type of player that makes others around him better. Right now, he may very well be the team’s MVP.


Rule #1 of a successful defense: Be Strong up the Middle. The Dolphins are that, though there will be some ongoing concern with Taylor’s foot injury and his ability to run and tackle.


Still, the bigger worry continues to be defending the pass. While a defensive genius like Saban is quite capable of minimizing this problem (e.g. zone schemes), expect ongoing frustration with this issue.


Finally, in the Kicking Game, the Dolphins have three huge field position assets in Olindo Mare, Donnie Jones, and Wes Welker.


Mare’s ability to consistently nail touchbacks is an underrated skill. Since the introduction of the K-ball in 1999, he has the most touchbacks in the NFL with 97 and the most touchbacks in the NFL (130) since 1997.


Jones has been better than many thought. He currently ranks a respectable 10th in the NFL in gross average (44.2 yards) and, more importantly, 2nd in Net Average (40.3 yards). Yes, he has been inconsistent at times. That he has good coverage men supporting him has helped.


As for Welker the cult hero, he is the John Offerdahl of punt returners. His aggressive style of play has him ranked #3 in the AFC in punt return average.


Mare, Jones, Welker, and the coverage teams must continue to allow the Dolphins to better control field position than their opponents can, thus presenting the offense and defense with better opportunities to be aggressive.


Baring injury, the Dolphins are a team that figures to get stronger and smarter as the season gets longer. And injury is a key here because the Dolphins aren’t blessed with great depth.


So, yes, this team can position themselves for a legitimate playoff run. A win over the Falcons starts the ride.




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