(CBSMiami)- Two weeks left in the regular season and the Dolphins are in full must-win mode to make the playoffs. It's not exactly a place one would expect to be in with a 9-5 record and two games left in the season but, thanks to the strength of the AFC, that's where things stand.
Still, the fact that the Dolphins are here at all in the second season under Brian Flores is a testament to what the coach has built. NFL on CBS analyst Charles Davis, who was on the broadcast for last week's win over the New England Patriots, says the way Flores approached the team from the jump helped them build to this moment.
"I think this all started last year when Brian Flores didn't care about "tanking for Tua". He just put in what he wanted, what
he demanded from players, coached to win. They saw that,'" said Davis. "The biggest thing is you play because you can't fool the people in the locker room. They know if you are competing and they know if you're pulling back on the reins. Once they bought in and realized this is a coach that's competing, they were all in and went all out. Now you carry that over to this year. Makes the big move with Tua when he doesn't have to. But, the beauty is, he did it and he still demanded the same thing. I'm not doing it because we're rebuilding, I'm not putting him in for the future, I'm putting him in because we can win now. That's exactly what's happened."
Even with inserting the rookie QB into the lineup, the Dolphins have lost just two games with him under center and one of those was a one possession loss to the top team in the AFC, the Kansas City Chiefs. For Tua, Davis has seen growth in his play, saying "you can see him getting more confidence, he's learning. I said in our last game, I felt like he was making more anticipatory throws now and I saw that again on Sunday."
He points to the early interception inside the Patriots 10-yard-line that cost the team a score as being a moment where that growth was exemplified.
"I also saw him make a big error inside the 10-yard line going in and then he came back later in the game and in a very similar situation, similar pass rush, he darts into the end zone. I called it artificial intelligence, where you learn from your lessons and get better the next time. That's what he is showing right now and it's a big deal," said Davis.
The rookie is helped by the fact that the team's ground game has begun to pick up steam with over 100 yards in three of the last four weeks and 250 yards Sunday against the Patriots. That development is one that has Davis intrigued by their playoff potential.
The biggest thing for them is they ran the heck out of the ball which we have not seen," said Davis. "That offensive line with three rookies is built to run the football and they're starting to learn how to move people. I like that to go with that defense which likes to take the ball away. They are very aggressive ballhawks."
Of course, a playoff berth is not a given. The team has to travel to Las Vegas this week for a Saturday night battle against the Raiders who are fighting for their own slim playoff hopes. As mentioned above, the Dolphins likely have to win out to assure themselves a playoff spot. The Ravens, right behind them in the Wild Card picture, have games against two under .500 teams left in the Giants and Bengals. If both teams finish 11-5, the Dolphins get the final spot. If they lose one and Baltimore sweeps their final two, Miami comes up just short.
As Davis puts it, "their sledding is a little bit tougher you would think on paper than Baltimore's."
This week's matchup against the Raiders has flipped in the Dolphins favor in the eyes of FiveThirtyEight's game projection model which has Miami with a 64 percent win probability heading into the game. That projection is in part due to some doubt as to whether Raiders starting quarterback Derek Carr will play or not this weekend. If he can't go, Vegas will turn to backup Marcus Mariota who, along with Carr, took first team reps Tuesday.
The Dolphins are also hoping to maybe get some help from the Steelers, though that help may be on rocky ground after Pittsburgh's Monday night loss to Cincinnati. The Steelers face the Colts and Browns the next two weeks and if Pittsburgh were to win those games, and Miami wins their last two, they could vault to the fifth seed at 11-5.
But, if they lose those games, the Dolphins are left with fighting for that seventh spot and facing a likely third matchup with division foe Buffalo.
For now, the focus shifts to Saturday night when the team heads to Las Vegas for an 8:15 p.m. kickoff.
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