It’s all been building to this. The offseason workouts. Training camp practices in the South Florida heat and humidity. Playing with pain. The team meetings. The late-night video sessions. It’s all been building to December football. And for the Dolphins, who are vying for their first playoff berth since 2016, the AFC East title, and, yes, the No. 1 seed in the AFC, this means everything.
“You want to be in those months playing meaningful football,” said Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who has participated in two Super Bowls.
“And when you are in those months playing meaningful football, it is something unlike any other style of football that exists. The beginning of the season pales in comparison to that environment.”
The Dolphins (8-3) enter Sunday’s game at San Francisco (7-4) as underdogs because they’re on the road, they’re facing the league’s No. 1 defense, and they’re probably going to be without left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) and right tackle Austin Jackson (ankle).
Whatever. These are thrilling times for McDaniel, his players and the organization.
Meaningful December football means the grand plan is coming together. You can go back to drafting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa in 2020. Drafting wide receiver Jaylen Waddle in 2021. Hiring McDaniel this year. The blockbuster trade for wide receiver Tyreek Hill this year. Signing Armstead as a free agent this year. The trade deadline acquisition of edge rusher Bradley Chubb one month ago.
All of those moves, along with dozens of others, have put the Dolphins in a position where if they play .500 football the rest of the way they’ll almost certainly earn themselves a playoff berth.
But that won’t be easy. All of their remaining opponents have at least a .500 record.
The 49ers game kicks off an energy-sapping three-game road trip that continues with a Sunday night prime-time game at the Los Angeles Chargers (6-5) and, possibly, a Saturday night prime time game at Buffalo (9-3), if it gets changed, as well.
Then the Dolphins come home to host Green Bay (4-8) on Christmas, visit New England (6-6) on New Year’s Day, and host the New York Jets (7-4) in the Jan. 7 regular season finale.
McDaniel, however, warns against players looking ahead. He likes it when they have no idea who they face in two weeks. He likes it when they focus on what’s immediately ahead. Players have embraced that philosophy.
“We’re still keeping the main thing the main thing — staying consistent,” defensive tackle John Jenkins said, intentionally using the phrase twice. “I don’t get lost in the hype. That’s me personally. I can’t speak on everybody else. But I just know if I had to say something from a general unity standpoint, we’re all focused on the next thing, that’s the next day.”
That’s fine for the players, but almost everyone outside the locker room is looking long term and big picture, meaning the remainder of the regular season. The outlook is bright if the Dolphins stay focused.
“When you start looking to the future too much you start looking past the guy in front of you,” safety Justin Bethel said, “and sometimes you let a game get away from you.”
The Dolphins haven’t done that all season, not early, after their 3-0 start, not during their three-game losing streak that followed, and not during their current five-game winning streak, which has come against the NFL’s lower-tier teams.
The Dolphins have remained disciplined and focused through the early-season quarterback woes that saw all three — Tagovailoa, Teddy Bridgewater and Skylar Thompson — knocked out of games with injuries. They remained disciplined through the offensive tackle injury wave that saw Armstead and Jackson go down, and through the secondary’s injury problems that have robbed them of starting cornerback Byron Jones, nickel Nik Needham and safety Brandon Jones.
The reward for all of that dedication is meaningful December football, which is a different sort of test from September, October or November football.
“Everybody’s body is kind of breaking down,” linebacker Jaelan Phillips said. “That’s really where the mental toughness comes in, and obviously with the playoffs looming, everything is more important.
“Obviously, every game is important, but once you get to crunch time, the pressure starts to pick up a little bit, so it makes it fun. That’s where real football starts.”