I was probably just as let down as any of you when I saw our Dolphins fall on their face in the final two games of the season. Especially against two teams that looked to be inferior on paper. Teams they should have been able to beat. But then I started looking into the possible reasons why they lost to two division rivals, and a few interesting facts seemed to jump out at me.
Let's set aside the Bert Bell's quotation, "On any given Sunday, any team in the NFL can beat any other team" and the idea there is parity in the NFL.
Last season, of the 32 teams in the NFL, only one team was successful in sweeping all 6 of their divisional games. The 11 - 6 Colts.
And conversely, only one team lost every one of their divisional contests. (The 3 - 13 Redskins).
While these games are important in determining the four AFC/NFC divisional champions and play a factor in some tie breaker strategies, they do not always represent the best teams going into the playoffs.
The worst divisional record of the four AFC Division Champions was the northern division Bengals with their 3 - 3 record. In the NFC, the Packers, (also in the northern division) had a 3 - 2- 1 record.
The 11 - 5 Chiefs had the worst AFC division record of the two wild card teams with a 2 - 4 mark. (The 9 - 7 Chargers managed a 4 - 2 stat). In the NFC, both the 12 - 4 49er's and the 11 - 5 Saints were 5 -1 versus their divisional foes.
The 8 - 8 Steelers had the best division record in the AFC for a non playoff team @ 4 - 2, while in the NFC, the 8 - 8 Cowboys actually had a 5 - 1 record against their division rivals.
1 team in the NFL lost all of their divisional match ups.
5 teams won 1 game against a divisional opponent.
7 teams won 2 matches, (Miami was one of them).
7 clubs won 3, (including the Jets and the Bills).
6 teams won 4, (all but two, were in the playoffs).
5 teams won 5, (All but one made the playoffs).
1 team won all 6 divisional games.
Divisional games are always some of the most difficult to figure out because of the familiarity these teams have with one another and the fact that they playing each other twice a year. (And sometimes a third time in the playoffs, too). If anyone knows each others strengths and weaknesses, these teams do. A division foe is more likely to beat you than any other team in your conference. (Or opposing conference). Now you get an idea why the NFL loves to schedule these, "Trap Games" at the end of each season. It's a, "no holds barred" affair with playoff implications weighing in the balance. A team may have done poorly all season, but if they can make sure one of their division rivals doesn't reach the playoffs, then they at least have bragging rights to that feat.
All but one of the 12 playoff teams wound up losing a game with someone in their division. Half of them lost 2 games or more to a division rival. Like I said. They are harder to predict than matches between teams that rarely get to play each other.
Buffalo, at 5 - 9 was already out of the playoff race when they played Miami for the second time. They do have a potent running game, (our biggest defensive weakness) and the leagues best pass rushing quartet (which reaped havoc against our league worst, offensive line in pass protection).
They were able to take full advantage of these traits against us on their own turf. With nothing to lose they also threw in a couple of trick plays at opportune times to demoralize and seal our fate. But then, they played several good teams and gave them all they could handle during the season and did beat us in our first meeting, as well.
The Jets, (with a better 7 - 8 record than the Bills) were just about mathematically out of playoff contention. They had the slimmest chance of making it and were depending on everything working out just right with several other AFC week 17 match ups.
They had less of an offensive to worry about being 31st in passing but were ranked 6th in rushing yards. They were about as good in pass defense as us (22nd vs. 21st respectively) but were number 3 against the run. Their talented defensive front seven did not sack Tannehill once, but they kept pressure on him and held our running game to 97 yards and only 2 rushing first downs. Where they got us was in turn overs.
Miami had led the league all year long having at least one turn over in every game, through 15 games. (Something no other team could lay claim to). Miami did not create one fumble recovery or interception during this final game. The Jets however intercepted Miami 3 times which proved to be the deciding factor in this contest. They ran the ball 42 times for 154 yards (3.7 average) and passed sparingly but effectively. (18 of 28 for 220 yards). Testimony that even a rookie QB (Geo Smith) can play well with a decent running game in front of him.
Some say they were playing to keep Rex Ryan's job. I believe any coach that tries to motivate his team by using such an unprofessional ploy deserves to be let go at season's end. Ryan is known for being a player's coach. He is a good motivator and should not have to stoop to that level to get his team fired up to win. He has accomplished more than expected after losing a bunch of key starters before the season. Most believed the Jets to be in a rebuilding year with a rookie QB and very little talent. But the New York Jets almost made the play offs, mostly on the back of a strong defense.
Professional football players play for one reason alone. To win! You won't hear any player honestly tell you they wanted to win one for their coach, or the Gipper or any other reason/cause. It's a matter of pride and honor.
Philbin may not show much emotions or have the motivational tools that some coaches posses but he did keep the team together during the Martin/Incognito fiasco. He believes in a family like atmosphere/team first philosophy. He doesn't throw anyone under the bus and is loyal to his players/staff. They know what to expect from him and that he is a man of integrity and high moral values. He does possess a rather dry sense of humor, but doesn't put up with any nonsense.
Yes, it was a major disappointment to lose the way we did at the end of the year. Even more so to lesser teams like the Bills or Jets. But if anyone is going to keep you humble in this league you can count on it being someone in your own division. Why do you think division rivalries are the most hyped, heated, bitter battles in the NFL? You think we aren't going to remember how these two teams kept us out of the playoffs when we face them again in 2014?
I hate to offer the usual, "wait until next year" optimism. We have hired a new Offensive Coordinator, a few needed positional coaches and a new General Manager. And I have to say, there is a very real reason to look forward. Unlike some of the mediocre staff we brought in in years past, a couple of these coaches come from better than average franchises with some very respectable statistics and history to back them up.
But I'll save that for future stories.