MIAMI GARDENS — Congratulations are in order to Mike McDaniel for taking a broken quarterback and turning him into an MVP candidate. We’ll never know if anyone else could have worked the magic he did with Tua Tagovailoa, nor do we want to.
So, Mike: If you did that with one man, can you do that with 53?
That’s the question he and the Dolphins now face. On Sunday, they sliced through the Houston Texans 30-15 in a game that wasn’t nearly that close. It was the Dolphins’ fifth win in a row, giving them an 8-3 record and setting the table for … what, exactly?
“There is nothing better in professional football than meaningful December and January games,” McDaniel said. “Nothing better.”
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C’mon, Mike. You can’t expect South Floridians to identify with that. We’re too used to the Dolphins being on the doorstep of bigger things but never managing to knock on the door, let alone get a foot in it. If fans have grown weary from this, just think about the players who lived through it.
“I’m going to be nice and say it feels good to have that for a change — playing meaningful games as of Thanksgiving,” fifth-year linebacker Jerome Baker said.
A team that once stood 3-3 after three consecutive losses has roared off the mat. Its reward consists of a rare three-game road stretch against the 49ers, Chargers and Bills — games that offer McDaniel’s troops a chance to prove they are who we think they are.
It’s one thing to beat the Lions and the Texans, another thing to knock off winning teams in their own house.
“Really good teams,” guard Rob Hunt said. “Winning teams. Know-how-to-win teams.”
That’s not to say this devil’s triangle of a challenge seems too big in Hunt’s eyes. It doesn’t. See, Tagovailoa isn’t the only one buying into this confidence thing that seems to ooze out of McDaniel.
“We ain’t scared,” Hunt said.
The fivethirtyeight.com playoff predictor all but puts the Dolphins in the playoffs — now. The site gives Miami a 91 percent chance of getting in, but get this: Beat the 49ers and the chances shoot up to 97 percent. Sweep the California teams and it’s more than 99 percent. Sweep all three (tall task, but humor me) and they’re in, period.
In other words, it’s possible that the next time the Dolphins play at Hard Rock Stadium — on Christmas against the Packers — they could be playing for home-field advantage rather than the usual drill of scratching and clawing for their playoff lives.
Long time since Dolphins won a playoff game
Imagine the Dolphins in a playoff game at Hard Rock Stadium. It takes some imagination, since it hasn’t happened since Jan. 4, 2009. For the last time the Dolphins walked off that field with a playoff victory, you’d have to go back to Dec. 30, 2000, when the winning QB was Jay Fielder. So yes, Dolfans would be “juiced,” to borrow McDaniel’s word, if that comes to pass.
All that is a long way off. Next weekend alone presents the real possibility that the Dolphins will be sending free-agent pickup Brandon Shell out at left tackle to keep Nick Bosa off Tagovailoa’s back. The Dolphins could be without both of their starting tackles, in fact, because of injuries to Terron Armstead (pectoral) and Austin Jackson (ankle) against the Texans.
“That’s really where the mental toughness comes in,” linebacker Jaelan Phillips said of the toll the NFL season takes on bodies. “And obviously with the playoffs looming everything is more important. Once you get to crunch time, the pressure starts to pick up a little bit, so it makes it fun. I mean, that’s when real football starts.”
Phillips is in only his second season, so this is uncharted territory for him. Linebacker Bradley Chubb, who just arrived from Denver, is relishing this new feeling, too.
“I’ve probably never had this in my career, you know what I mean?” Chubb said. “Going on five years and never been in the conversation this late in the season. So just to have that, have the guys, everybody fighting hard, everybody coming in with the right mindset each and every day throughout the week is just, it’s special to see for sure.”
Not everyone on the Dolphins is new to this idea of a team getting hotter as the weather turns colder. Armstead experienced it with the Saints. McDaniel came over from Kyle Shanahan’s staff on the 49ers, so he knows what lies ahead.
“I’m very excited for our young team and a lot of guys to feel that for the first time,” McDaniel said. “I think it was important that guys looked at this game through the lens of establishing good position for that competitive playoff run. We’ve got six games left … They’re all going to count for whether or not we’re able to be in the playoffs, whether or not we’re able to have home games, all of those things that you want as a team, you have to earn it down the stretch. This is as fun as it gets. I’m really juiced for the guys.”
The juice worked for Tagovailoa.
Now let’s see about the entire 53-man roster, about to embark on a road trip that could define their season.