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The Miami Dolphins reached the playoffs for the first time in eight years in the 2016 season, although they were eliminated at the first hurdle by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Adam Gase’s men were outclassed from start to finish by the AFC North outfit, resulting in a heavy 30-12 defeat at Heinz Field.
Despite their exit in the wildcard round, the progress that the club made in their first season under the tenure of Gase gives hope for the future that the Dolphins will be a perennial fixture in January football.
An injury to quarterback Ryan Tannehill limited their impact, while they were also without Reshad Jones and Mike Pouncey down the stretch.
The return of those key men should boost Miami’s prospects of challenging the New England Patriots in the AFC East, but dislodging the Super Bowl champions will be incredibly difficult.
The Dolphins have already made solid moves in the off-season, but will need to strike in the draft to ensure that they do not take a step back in the next campaign.
The Dolphins were handed the toughest of tests in the opening two matches of the season, playing the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots on the road.
Gase’s men battled the Seahawks well and should have forged into a comfortable lead when Tannehill threw deep to Kenny Stills, but the wideout dropped a sure touchdown.
Tannehill did put his side ahead late in the game with a two-yard run, only for the Seahawks to snatch the win late on as Russell Wilson found Doug Baldwin in the endzone.
Matters were tougher against the Patriots, despite the absence of Tom Brady. Jimmy Garoppolo carved apart the Dolphins’ secondary to put his team into a healthy lead, only for Kiko Alonso to injury the back-up, pressing rookie Jacoby Brissett into action.
Tannehill got his side back into the game, but the Patriots’ lead was too great, with the quarterback throwing a late interception to confirm his side’s defeat.
The Dolphins almost slipped to a defeat to the Cleveland Browns on home soil, needing a late field-goal miss from Cody Parkey to send the game to overtime. Jay Ajayi ran in for the match-winning score from 44 yards to deliver Miami’s first win of the season.
However, the joy was short-lived as the Cincinnati Bengals stifled the offense, limiting Tannehill and company to just seven points in a blowout at Paul Brown Stadium.
The Tennessee Titans’ offense had too much power for the Dolphins, with a late second quarter score from Delanie Walker taking the game away from Gase’s men before former Miami wideout Rishard Matthews secured the win.
The running power of Ajayi stemmed the tide for the Dolphins, with the London-born back recording 200-yard performances in successive matches to guide his side to victories over the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Buffalo Bills.
After the bye week, Gase’s men were forced to battle against the New York Jets, prevailing in a close contest with Kenyan Drake returning a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.
The defense won the game against the San Diego Chargers on the road, intercepting Philip Rivers four times over the course of the contest, including Alonso’s 60-yard return for a touchdown.
Miami needed more late heroics against the Los Angeles Rams after struggling for the majority of the game. Tannehill led his side back in the fourth quarter, connecting with Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker to snatch the victory.
The Dolphins quarterback put on a clinic to steer his team past the San Francisco 49ers with ease, although he and his offense struggled immensely in a defeat at the hands of the Baltimore Ravens, ending their run of six-straight wins.
Miami met the Arizona Cardinals in week 14 of the season in a contest that would turn out to be decisive in the club’s hopes of competing deep into the playoffs.
The Dolphins dominated the match and were on course for a comfortable win, holding a 21-9 lead in the third quarter until Tannehill suffered a campaign-ending knee injury.
Matt Moore replaced him in the line-up and managed to lead his side to victory after the Cardinals mounted a comeback, driving the team into field-goal range before Andrew Franks kicked the winning effort.
With Moore at signal-caller the club still eased past the Jets before defeating the Bills in a 34-31 thriller in overtime, with Franks sending another field goal through the posts, taking his side into the playoffs with their 10th win of the term.
The Patriots blew them out in the final game of the regular season, although it was preservation time for Gase’s men.
However, in the snow in Pittsburgh their first playoff game in eight years was over before it began as two scores from Antonio Brown put the game beyond their reach, allowing the home side to ease to victory.
The Dolphins have been active in the free-agent market, although they’ve locked down their own stars to deals, signing Jones to an extension along with pass-rusher Andre Branch and wide receiver Stills.
Linebacker Lawrence Timmons has been signed from the Pittsburgh Steelers, while safety Nate Allen and offensive lineman Ted Larsen have also been added.
Julius Thomas was acquired in a trade with the Jacksonville Jaguars, potentially adding the threat that Jordan Cameron failed to provide at tight end, although Branden Albert was sent in the opposite direction, which could prompt a move for another offensive lineman.
In the draft expect the Dolphins to look to the future with a move for a pass-rusher in the early rounds. Cameron Wake has been a revelation for the club since joining in 2009, but at the age of 35 the club need to alleviate the strain on his body and prepare for life without him.
Depth at cornerback behind Byron Maxwell and Xavien Howard should also be considered early on, although if one of the top two linebackers – Reuben Foster or Zach Cunningham – is there at 22 then they should definitely be on the hit list.
The Dolphins are an improving outfit and could have been a challenger in the playoffs if not for Tannehill and Jones’ injuries.
Should they remain injury-free and their defense is able to support their offense, which has threats through the air and on the ground – then they may become a threat to the Patriots at the top of the AFC Conference.
Gase’s men are an intriguing price at 25/1 26.00 +2500 25.00 25.00 -0.04 at TopBet sportsbook to be the AFC’s representative in the Super Bowl in the 2017 season. Tannehill could produce a season like that of Eli Manning or Joe Flacco in the past to drive his side into the Vince Lombardi trophy game.
Miami Dolphins To Win AFC Conference
Odds: 25/1 26.00 +2500 25.00 25.00 -0.04