The Miami Dolphins clinched their first winning season in four years Sunday, just their second since 2008.
They even kicked their longtime AFC East rival the New England Patriots out of playoff contention in the process in Sunday’s 22-12 win at Hard Rock Stadium.
And with two games left in the 2020 regular season, there’s one goal the Dolphins (9-5) must achieve to put the icing on Brian Flores’ second year with the franchise:
Win out. And reach the playoffs.
“Let’s call it the playoffs this week against the Raiders. Let’s call it that,” Flores said Monday as the team shifts its focus to Saturday night’s road game against the Las Vegas Raiders (7-7).
“It’s one day at a time. That’s were my focus is and we’ll try to direct their focus. It’s one game. It’s a one-game season. Let’s call it a one-game playoff season.”
Miami and Baltimore are tied with 9-5 records, but the Dolphins hold the No. 7 and final seed in the AFC playoff race thanks to a better conference record (6-4 vs. 6-5) than the Ravens.
The Dolphins must beat the Raiders on the day-after-Christmas and beat the AFC East champion Buffalo Bills on Jan. 3 to secure the franchise’s third playoff berth since the 2000 season. The others came during 2008 and 2016, the team’s last two winning seasons.
Flores, general manager Chris Grier and the Dolphins are ahead of schedule in the second year of their franchise rebuild — which started with a 5-11 campaign last season — with many young, first-contract NFL players gaining valuable experience alongside valuable veteran contributors this season.
Starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was one of six Dolphins rookies to start on offense Sunday, and he even became the sixth rookie quarterback to come out with a victory in his first game against Patriots coach Bill Belichick.
The final two games of this season will also serve as a major stepping stool for Flores as a coach and his players as their franchise overhaul continues.
“Obviously, December when you play in meaningful games, there’s a little bit added anxiety or stress — if you want to call it that. It’s good to go through that and realize you’re still playing football,” Flores said. “But yeah, it’s a one-game season for us.”
Thanks to a steady run game, which produced 250 yards behind rookie Salvon Ahmed (122 yards and a touchdown), veteran Matt Breida (86 yards) and Tagovailoa (two rushing touchdowns), the Dolphins beat their biggest rival without some of their biggest contributors offensively.
Miami hopes to get some players back from injury in the final two games.
Tight end Mike Gesicki, who leads the Dolphins with six touchdown catches, was held out due to a shoulder injury he sustained on Dec. 13 although he was able to practice on a limited capacity before the Patriots game.
Leading receiver DeVante Parker and receiver/return specialist Jakeem Grant were held out due to hamstring injuries.
“So, he along with a lot of our other players are trying to fight to get out there as quickly as they can,” Flores said of Gesicki, who has a career-high 602 yards on 44 receptions this season.
“Obviously, we wouldn’t put them out there or even practice them if we didn’t feel like they couldn’t withstand a practice or a game. Their health is first. But he’s fighting through it.”
The Dolphins also played without veteran guard Ereck Flowers (ankle), while rookie guard Solomon Kindley sustained a knee injury during the game, which Flores says still needs to be further examined.
“Solomon is still being evaluated. He was in here [Monday] morning. Look, he’s going to do everything he can to get out there. He’s a tough kid,” Flores said of Kindley, Miami’s fourth-round pick last April.
“We’ll see where this is. We’ll do some more tests. He’s treating and things of that nature, but we’ve got to run a few more tests.”
In Kindley’s absence, the Dolphins relied on second-year lineman Michael Deiter, a 2019 third-round pick out of Wisconsin, to fill in on the offensive line, to spark a big block on Flores’ favorite play of the Patriots game.
Just before the end of the third quarter, the Dolphins were faced with a third-and-8 at the New England 34-yard line.
Traditionally, the down and distance calls for a pass play. But Tagovailoa and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey had another idea that worked out.
Tagovailoa handed the football off to third-down back Patrick Laird, who ran for 12 yards and a first down to get to the 22-yard line, extending the drive which allowed Miami to score a go-ahead touchdown to begin the fourth quarter.
“Key word, traditionally,” Flores said when asked about the play specifically.
“It’s a good call by Chan. I think it’s one of my favorite calls in the game. They play some multiple fronts there in their, let’s call it dime to 7-8 [defensive back] packages. Chan felt like there was an opportunity to stick a run in there.
“We got it. We blocked it up well. Deiter came around, pulled on the safety who was in a linebacker kinda position. And Laird make a real good run and picked up a first down there. I thought it was a really, really nice call by Chan.”
The Dolphins keep finding a way to win this season, creating a palpable buzz around the franchise that will only maintain with a steadfast focus to their playoff mission.
It may be hard to tune out the outside noise or distractions, but the Dolphins know what’s at stake.
“I don’t have a problem of people talking about whatever they want to talk about,” Flores said, “but our playoff is this week against the Raiders.”