NFL Nation: Miami Dolphins
Except two of the first three times he lined up to punt Sunday against the Miami Dolphins, he ended up not punting at all. Martin completed two fake punt passes in the first half Sunday, a 24-yard completion to Jed Collins that extended the first drive of the game and a 3-yard completion to Isa Abdul-Quddus that didn’t get enough to get a first down.
It is the first time a punter has thrown and completed two passes in a game since Nov. 11, 2012, when St. Louis’ Johnny Hekker completed two passes in a 24-24 tie against San Francisco.
Martin had never attempted a pass in his career before Sunday and was involved in one fake before that -- the Lions’ failed fake field goal at Pittsburgh last season, where Martin got crushed trying to run for a first down deep in Steelers' territory.
Miami also tried to get in the fake punt game, but illegally shifted on its converted fake punt run, eliminating the play and forcing the Dolphins to actually punt.
It was all part of a crazy first half that saw a 49-yard one-play drive by Detroit with a deep post for a touchdown to Calvin Johnson.
There were also interceptions on back-to-back plays in the second quarter: A James Ihedigbo pick of Ryan Tannehill that was returned 70 yards into Miami territory. Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford tried to take advantage of Brent Grimes on Johnson on the next play, but Grimes leaped up and made a one-handed interception in the end zone to give the ball back to Miami.
Oh, and in the first quarter, Detroit held Miami to 1 total yard.
“We’ve just got to try to slow them down, show them different looks, run the ball well, move the pocket a little bit if we can. Things like that,” he said.
Such bullet points might be achieved a little easier this week considering the Bears, for the first time since preparation for the season opener, practiced Thursday with their entire starting offensive line. They’ll certainly need every one of them to handle a Miami defensive front that is legitimately seven or eight deep.
Defensive ends Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon generate the headlines as they lead the Dolphins with 3.5 sacks and six hurries apiece. But other defensive linemen such as Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and Earl Mitchell are also playing at a high level, which is part of the reason Miami dropped Brady, Smith, Carr and Rodgers for a combined 14 sacks over the team’s first five games.
“As an overall defense, they’re very physical,” Bears offensive coordinator Aaron Kromer said. “They hit the quarterback in every game a bunch of times, and that’s the No. 1 goal in this game: to limit the hits on our quarterback. You look at Tom Brady. You look at Aaron Rodgers. They were hit multiple times. Our No. 1 goal coming [into] this game is to keep Jay safe and to keep him in a pocket where he can complete a pass.”
Cutler might find that a difficult task because Miami’s high-pressure front is backed by experienced corners in Brent Grimes and Cortland Finnegan, who not only understand route concepts to excel in zone coverage but also play physically as man-to-man defenders.
The Dolphins rank No. 9 in the NFL against the pass.
“They understand what they have in their front. They know they’re going to get pressure. They know the quarterback can’t sit back there forever,” Cutler explained. “They break on routes, they sit on stuff. They read concepts really well.”
They’re versatile, too, according to Bears coach Marc Trestman, who broke down the difficulty of attacking Miami’s defense as a whole.
“First of all they play very tight coverage, even in zone,” Trestman said. “Then on third down, because it's man-to-man, you're going to need an extra click. That's what they really try to do on third down is they try to hold you up long enough to be able to have the extra click to be able to get to the quarterback. They're hitting the quarterback in every game. The challenge is getting open quick enough to beat the pass rush, and that's why they play so much man [coverage] on third down.”
Miami’s penchant for man-to-man coverage in passing situations is fine by the Bears. Trestman and Kromer have asked Cutler to start utilizing his underrated mobility to make teams pay when situations warrant.
Through the first six games, Cutler has broken off seven runs for gains of 10 yards or more.
"We’ve been asking him to run in situational plays when everybody is covering and nobody is looking at him,” Kromer said.
Added Cutler: “I just think we’re doing a really good job of recognizing coverage and two-man (two-deep zone coverage with man-to-man coverage underneath). Third downs have been a big one where we’ve caught a little bit of two-man here and there and [it] gave me some opportunities to run.”
It also opens up opportunity for defenses to administer punishment to the quarterback. Remember, Cutler missed time last season on two different occasions due to injuries, and he hasn’t played an entire 16-game season since 2009.
That’s not to say Cutler lacks toughness, because he certainly doesn’t. The quarterback took monstrous shots earlier this season in San Francisco and Atlanta and popped right back up on both occasions -- and actually seemed to play more inspired.
In explaining his toughness, the quarterback pointed to a need to lead the team through adverse situations.
“I know how important it is to the rest of the guys in the huddle,” Cutler said. “I don’t want to let them down. I don’t want to let the coaches down [and] I think a lot of it is driven by that fact. I don’t want to miss plays because I know those guys in front of me and the guys on the outside, they’d do the same thing for me.”
Having played four of their past six on the road, the Chicago Bears finally return home to Soldier Field to host the Miami Dolphins, a team still reeling from falling to the Green Bay Packers in a last-second heartbreaker.
ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Dolphins reporter James Walker take a closer look at the matchup:
Wright: There’s plenty of second-guessing going on in Miami after the Dolphins blew a lead and dropped that heartbreaker to the Green Bay Packers in the final seconds. Typically, losses like that are emotionally draining for everyone involved, making it tougher to prepare for the next opponent. What’s your sense of how the players and coaches have responded since Sunday’s setback, and do you see the Dolphins finding a way to bounce back on the road against the Bears?
Walker: Good question, Michael. The Dolphins are putting a “good face” on this loss. Coach Joe Philbin made it a point Tuesday to say this is one of the best practices the team had all season. Players also are beating the drum this week that everything is fine -- the Dolphins are very close, and they were just one play away. That’s what the Dolphins are telling themselves and the media this week. But this is a team that’s lost three of its past four games -– and two were 19-point losses to the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. At some point, confidence can be an issue for Miami. I don’t believe the team is at that point, because the Dolphins have enough talent to compete with most teams. But anything is possible, especially on the road, and another poor showing in Chicago could create some doubt.
How is former Dolphins receiver Brandon Marshall treating this week? Any extra motivation?
Wright: That’s a good question because I’m sure Marshall is no different than any other athlete wanting to play better against his former team. But at the same time, I go back to the summer when I had the chance to hang out with him at his house to do an interview for ESPN The Magazine and we talked about the trade to Chicago from Miami. Marshall has said on multiple occasions that the trade to Chicago possibly saved his life.
Here’s what he had to say about that: “Those people in Miami, they wanted my head for a year or two. But then I come to Chicago and you see me continue to produce at a high level. I had Jay Cutler. I was in a system I was familiar with. So it was career-saving. Now, the life-saving thing we’re talking about, I don’t know if the cameras can see it [Marshall looks around], but look at this beautiful city. You know what I mean? I say that it wasn’t a life-or-death thing. But a lot of us go through life doing things that we don’t love. We’re doing it for the wrong reasons, and we die freaking chasing money or chasing something to pay bills or we’re not happy. But for me, every single day, I walk outside my door and I smell the city air. I look at these tall buildings. I see people wearing Bulls hats, Blackhawks hats, Bears shirts. It’s fulfilling. It’s stimulating. The love and joy that we receive on a daily basis, it sometimes is too much. So that’s what I mean when I say life-saving.”
Looking at Miami’s defense, it appeared the Dolphins were able to get some pressure on Aaron Rodgers. How confident are you the Dolphins can pressure Jay Cutler similarly on Sunday? Like every other quarterback, Cutler will struggle when teams turn up the heat. But he’ll also take chances that lead to turnovers.
Walker: The Dolphins’ defensive line was terrific against the Packers. Their run fits were solid and they hounded Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers for three sacks. Miami probably would have had double that amount if not for Rodgers’ scrambling ability and quick release. This is probably the one unit the Dolphins can count on to take its game on the road and play well at Soldier Field. Miami is legitimately seven or eight deep on the defensive line. Defensive ends Cameron Wake (3.5 sacks) and Olivier Vernon (3.5 sacks) get most of the publicity, but the Dolphins have other defensive linemen such as Jared Odrick, Randy Starks and Earl Mitchell who are all playing at a high level. Dominating the line of scrimmage defensively provides one of the best ways for the Dolphins to pull off the road upset.
Chicago's defense arguably played its best game of the season against the Falcons. Has this group turned the corner?
Wright: I think the biggest change you’re starting to see is the defensive line is starting to come into its own, and as you know, that can work wonders for a defense as a whole. In the victory over the Falcons, Willie Young, Lamarr Houston and Jared Allen combined for three sacks, three quarterback hits and eight hurries, and Young now leads the NFL in sacks (7). When you’re generating pressure up front, the back end obviously isn’t forced to cover receivers for as long, which helps quite a bit. Also, the Bears have done a much better job stuffing the run on early downs, which has forced opponents into third-and-long situations. That puts opponents in must-pass situations, which in turn allows the Bears to pin back their ears and bring the heat. You’ve also got to give some credit to defensive coordinator Mel Tucker for doing a solid job calling games. He’s done an impressive job of mixing blitzes and coverage and seems to have gotten a good sense for what his players are capable of, which has allowed him to make the right calls at the most opportune times.
If I’m a Dolphins fan, I’d find it a little concerning that Philbin felt “antsy” and “queasy” about throwing the ball with the game on the line in the loss to Green Bay. I saw he said something about the quarterback running for his life, but I also know Tannehill has turned the ball over quite a bit. How much is Tannehill at fault for what I perceive as a lack of confidence in him from the coaching staff, and how much do other factors (suspect offensive line play, struggles at receiver, etc.) contribute?
Walker: Philbin deserves a bulk of the blame. It’s just not in his coaching DNA to be aggressive, at least at the right times. Sunday’s loss was the latest of plenty examples over the past three seasons. Two years ago, Philbin had an excuse that it was Tannehill’s rookie year. Last year, Philbin could say he still had a young quarterback. But to still coach tight on offense in Tannehill’s third year is concerning and, as you mentioned, doesn’t show enough confidence in his players. Tannehill is a lot of things at quarterback, but I would not describe him as gun-shy or skittish. Usually when the Dolphins play conservatively, Tannehill is at the mercy of conservative play-calling.
Why have the Bears been a better road team this year? Is that a reason for concern?
Wright: To answer your first question, to me it seems the Bears have been the victim of circumstance more than anything with regard to how they’ve performed at home versus on the road. But I can tell you the common denominator in each of this team’s three losses -- two of them being at home -- is turnovers. In each of the losses, Cutler threw two interceptions. In the season opener at home, the Bears committed a total of three turnovers, which led to 13 points. Then, when Green Bay came to town in Week 4, Cutler tossed two interceptions, which led to 14 points for the Packers. The following week at Carolina, the Bears turned the ball over four times, leading to 10 points for the Panthers. So to answer the second question, there’s no reason for concern from my vantage point about the Bears playing this week at home. It’s all about the turnovers for the Bears, regardless of venue. Since Marc Trestman took over as coach, the Bears are 7-0 when they finish on the positive side of the turnover margin, 2-7 when they finish on the negative side and 1-4 when the turnover margin is equal. The Bears have scored 49 points off takeaways this season, which might be a little scary for Tannehill.
The Kansas City Chiefs (0-2) and Miami Dolphins (1-1) meet for the first time since 2006 on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium. The Chiefs are coming off a 24-17 loss to the Broncos in Denver, a game in which the result wasn't decided until the Chiefs' fourth-down pass from the Denver 2 fell incomplete in the end zone in the final seconds. The Dolphins, after beating the Patriots to begin the season, are coming off a 29-10 loss at Buffalo.
ESPN Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher and ESPN Dolphins reporter James Walker discuss Sunday's game:
Teicher: This is the first time the Chiefs will play against Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Give us a little scouting report on him, his strengths and weaknesses. His season isn't off to a great start, statistically at least. How committed are the Dolphins to Tannehill?
Walker: It's funny that you mention Tannehill, because heading into this season, I've often compared him to Alex Smith. The comparison isn't necessarily based on physical traits, because Tannehill is more athletic and probably has a slightly stronger arm. But in terms of Tannehill's ceiling, I'm starting to think developing into a quarterback like Smith is the best the Dolphins can hope for.
I've watched every one of Tannehill's games in two-plus seasons and nearly every practice open to the media. I don't see that jump into superstardom the Dolphins are expecting. Tannehill hasn't shown he can take over games with his arm and he hasn't been consistent. It doesn't mean you can't win with Tannehill; like Smith, Tannehill just needs a lot to go well around him. Smith eventually figured that out and won with multiple teams. He also got a nice payday from Kansas City. It remains to be seen whether Tannehill can do the same.
Adam, what's the latest with Jamaal Charles and how would his potential absence impact the running game?
Teicher: Charles has a high ankle sprain, so it would be something close to a miracle if he played Sunday. I'll be interested in seeing how Knile Davis does with a full week of practice and after the Chiefs have built their game plan around him and his abilities. Davis is a lot bigger at 227 pounds than Charles, but he's fast -- maybe as fast as Charles. So he is a big-play threat, although he lacks Charles' ability to make defenders miss.
Going back to last season and counting the playoff game, Davis has carried the ball far more than Charles, but his average is about 3.3 yards per carry, compared to almost 6.1 for Charles. So Charles has been far more effective, but the Chiefs haven't been able to build a plan for Davis, as they will this week. The loss of Charles is actually bigger in the passing game. Charles is a better pass protector and receiver than Davis. The Chiefs might use either Joe McKnight, Cyrus Gray or De'Anthony Thomas as a third-down back.
James, what about Branden Albert? He was the longtime left tackle for the Chiefs before signing with the Dolphins this year. It looks like he's playing well. Has he stabilized Miami's offensive line?
Walker: Albert has fit in well here in Miami. Not only is he a good player at an important position, but Albert has taken on a leadership role and coached up younger players such as rookie right tackle Ja'Wuan James. The Dolphins have some issues on the offensive line, but Albert certainly isn't
one of them. He has been consistent in the running and passing game.
Since we're on the topic of former players, the Dolphins are facing cornerback Sean Smith and tight end Anthony Fasano for the first time. Both were significant contributors in Miami. How have they fit in since leaving for Kansas City?
Teicher: Smith is what the Chiefs thought they were getting. Certainly not a Pro Bowler, but a dependable cornerback who can match up with bigger, more physical receivers. He's moved into the No. 1 corner spot after the Chiefs released Brandon Flowers. Fasano missed half the season last year because of injuries, but has missed only a couple of snaps so far this season. He has quietly developed into a reliable red-zone receiver for Smith. He has the Chiefs' only receiving touchdown this season.
The Chiefs last season consistently won in the kicking game. That hasn't been the case this season, but the potential is there. Miami had problems last week on special teams. Are the Dolphins truly vulnerable there or was Sunday just a bad game in that regard?
Walker: Miami's special teams are indicative of its record. The unit was very good in Week 1 and very bad in Week 2. That's pretty much how the Dolphins have played as well. Miami is the only NFL team to allow and successfully execute a blocked punt in the first two games. The Dolphins probably won't dominate on special teams consistently, but I don't expect them to give up a 102-yard kickoff return for a touchdown every week. It's too early to say special teams are a major concern.
Finally, Adam, is this a must-win game already for the Chiefs?
Teicher: I'm usually not big on the concept of must-win games in September, but this is probably as close as it gets. After losing at home to Tennessee and coming up 2 yards short in their comeback attempt against Denver, the Chiefs have dug themselves a hole and it's impossible to see a realistic way out of it without beating the Dolphins. The Chiefs are 0-2, and after Miami, their next three games are against the Patriots, 49ers and Chargers, with two of those on the road. So this thing has already started to get away from the Chiefs, and they'll be miles behind the pack if they don't win in Miami.
Did the AFC East's best keep on getting better?
The perennial division champion New England Patriots signed elite cornerback Darrelle Revis, which could offset significant free-agency gains by the New York Jets and Miami Dolphins.
The Buffalo Bills are in good position to improve through this week's NFL draft. EJ Manuel, the Bills' top pick last season, returns as the starting quarterback and is one of three second-year players facing intense scrutiny in 2014.
Who finishes atop the AFC East in 2014 could depend largely on which team best handles the stretch run, as December features five inter-division matchups -- including three in a row for the Patriots to end the season.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the AFC East offseason and other key topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team has had the best offseason to date?
Rich Cimini: I'm all about the stars, which is why I'm picking the Patriots, who landed the best free agent of them all: Darrelle Revis. He's one of the top two cornerbacks in the league, a legitimate game-changer. His presence will allow Bill Belichick to play more press-man coverage, which will help their pass rush and create headaches for opponents. Once Brandon Browner serves his suspension, they'll have two physical corners. The Jets and Dolphins helped themselves in free agency, addressing need areas, but neither team acquired a player as good as Revis. The Patriots lost a terrific corner in Aqib Talib and actually upgraded. How often does that happen in free agency?
Mike Rodak: Comparing gains and losses in free agency, the Patriots have fared the best. The season is never won in March, but the Patriots were able to upgrade even after losing cornerback Aqib Talib. Signing Darrelle Revis was the most significant free-agent move in the division, while Brandon Browner adds another quality player to the secondary. The Jets aren't too far behind. Eric Decker and Chris Johnson add firepower where the Jets have struggled in recent years -- at their skill positions. Neither player, though, is on the same level as Revis, which is why I give the Patriots the edge. Honorable mentions go to the Dolphins for signing Branden Albert and the Bills for signing Brandon Spikes.
James Walker: I like what the Jets have done this offseason. It has been offense, offense and more offense in free agency for New York. The Jets went out and signed wide receiver Eric Decker, former Pro Bowl running back Chris Johnson and veteran quarterback Michael Vick. All three have a chance to make an impact on New York's weakest side of the football. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is a great defensive mind and has that side taken care of. It's just a matter of New York scoring more points this year. If the Jets can add a receiving threat such as Marqise Lee or Brandin Cooks in the first round Thursday, look out for "Gang Green."
Will an AFC East team select a quarterback in the first three rounds of the draft?
Cimini: No one will pick a quarterback in the first two days of the draft. The most likely candidate is the Dolphins, who have a new offensive coordinator and might be looking to acquire some Ryan Tannehill insurance after two so-so seasons -- but it won't happen before the fourth round, not this year. Neither Geno Smith nor EJ Manuel is entrenched with the Jets and Bills, respectively, but their teams have too many other needs to start doubling down on quarterbacks. The Patriots made headlines by hosting Johnny Manziel on a pre-draft visit, but I'm not buying it. It's still too early to start looking for an heir to the Tom Brady throne.
Rodak: The Patriots are the most likely to select a quarterback in the first three rounds. Their backup since 2011, Ryan Mallett, enters the final season of his rookie contract and hasn't proved in limited playing time that he's capable of being a starter. Mallett was a third-round selection and that could be the sweet spot for the Patriots again, although I wouldn't put it past them to take a quarterback in the second round if one of the top signal-callers falls. The Bills might also pluck a quarterback off the board by Friday night. EJ Manuel, a first-round pick last year, is their starter but they could use an upgrade over Thad Lewis or Jeff Tuel as their backup. If the right quarterback falls, Buffalo might pounce.
Walker: The third round seems like the best possibility; it's the safest round of the three for avoiding a quarterback controversy. The Bills would have the best case for drafting a quarterback fairly early. The team has said several times that it's behind 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel, but I don't see any reason for the Bills to avoid adding depth at the position behind Manuel in the middle of the draft. Backup quarterbacks Thad Lewis and Jeff Tuel are not the answers. Manuel had injury issues last year, as well. It makes sense for the Bills to consider a capable backup.
@RichCimini Pats and Mettenberger is a match made in heaven. Strong arm? Statue in pocket? Tall? Character/Injury concern? All check marks.- Bob (@Bobister) May 6, 2014
What stands out about the NFL schedule for each AFC East team?
Cimini: Prepare for the missiles of October. The Jets face Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning and Tom Brady in a 12-day span, Weeks 5 to 7. Before that, they meet up with a few other top quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Jay Cutler and Matthew Stafford. The Jets' suspect pass defense, which allowed nearly 4,000 yards last season, will be seriously tested. This is the main reason they need to prioritize cornerback in the draft.
Rodak: I've harped on this point before, but the Bills might have the NFL's toughest December schedule. Who knows where they'll be by Thanksgiving -- they could be in the playoff hunt or fading -- but their final month is brutal. The Bills must travel to face Peyton Manning and the Broncos, return home to host Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, make a cross-country trip to face the Raiders and then head back East to finish their regular season on the road against Brady and the Patriots. Ouch. Perhaps it's better that this four-game stretch comes at the end of the season rather than the beginning -- the Bills could be staring down an 0-4 start if it did -- but if they have any hope at the playoffs, they're going to need to win a couple of those games.
Walker: The Dolphins must bring their A-game on the road because they do not have back-to-back home games until the final two weeks. The Dolphins were a respectable 4-4 on the road last season, but it will be challenging for them to put together any significant winning streaks away from Sun Life Stadium. Miami's regular-season opener at home against the Patriots also stands out. We will find out immediately whether the Dolphins are a legitimate threat to New England in the AFC East.
@JamesWalkerNFL the 4 game stretch playing the broncos jets ravens and pats. ultimately make or break us- Michael Broyles (@mikesdolphins) May 7, 2014
Which AFC East second-year player has the most to prove?
Cimini: My first inclination is to say Jets quarterback Geno Smith, who could lose his starting job to Michael Vick, but that's the Jets beat writer in me talking. The better answer is Bills quarterback EJ Manuel. Why him? Unlike Smith, Manuel was a first-round pick, which means greater expectations -- and those expectations were heightened when the Bills anointed him as The Guy. Smith has yet to receive that kind of endorsement from the Jets. The Bills have hitched their franchise to Manuel, who is coming off a mediocre-at-best rookie season in which he went 4-6 as the starter. He was hampered by injuries, but part of being a franchise quarterback is being on the field.
Rodak: It has to be EJ Manuel. Geno Smith is a close second, but the Jets have Michael Vick to lean on. The Bills decided not to add an experienced backup quarterback this offseason, clearing the way for Manuel to be their unquestioned starter. Manuel needs to be more consistent. He showed flashes last season but also had some downright horrid games, including a four-interception afternoon against the Buccaneers. Manuel must also stay healthy. His three knee injuries last season limited him to 10 games and set back his development. Another injury this season will cloud the picture and keep the Bills from knowing exactly what they have. That could give him more leeway if he isn't progressing as quickly as the team would like, but it could also cause the Bills to look elsewhere.
Walker: It's easy to point to the quarterback position and say New York's Geno Smith and Buffalo's EJ Manuel have the most to prove. But neither player was drafted higher in 2013 than Miami's Dion Jordan, the No. 3 overall pick. The Dolphins traded up nine spots to get Jordan last year, only to use him as a backup defensive end and special-teamer. It was head-scratching to figure out why such a dynamic talent couldn't find his way onto the field. Jordan's usage actually was one point of contention between Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin and former general manager Jeff Ireland, who had a falling out last season. Was Jordan not ready for the NFL level? Was Miami's coaching staff holding him back? This is a big Year 2 to answer those questions.
@MikeReiss. Dion Jordan his lack of production as a #3 pick especially when Miami drafted him to put pressure on Brady...gives him the nod- paul (@kurtzfam4) May 6, 2014
There's the New England Patriots ... and then there's everyone else.
With a few exceptions, that has been the makeup of the AFC East since 2001, when Bill Belichick and Tom Brady won their first division title -- and Super Bowl -- for New England. Even when the Patriots lose, they win. One day after free-agent cornerback Aqib Talib left for Denver, New England replaced him with perennial Pro Bowl corner Darrelle Revis.
Belichick will turn 62 next month and Brady turns 37 in August. Both are closer to the end of their careers, so is it realistic to expect the Patriots to decline soon? The Buffalo Bills, Miami Dolphins and New York Jets are all surely hoping so, as recent history has been that they need to get past the Patriots to make a playoff run.
The AFC East hasn't produced a wild-card playoff team since 2010, when the Jets went on the road to upset the Patriots and punch their ticket to the AFC Championship Game. The Jets' success was short-lived, and they've since been cast back into the pack with the Bills and Dolphins.
Overall, this is a young division. All four teams, including the Patriots, were among the youngest in the AFC at the start of last season. That youth shows up most at quarterback, where Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel are all green and looking to prove their worth in the NFL. Their teams' ability to challenge the Patriots might hang in the balance.
The four writers who cover the division -- Rich Cimini in New York, Mike Reiss in New England, Mike Rodak in Buffalo and James Walker in Miami -- offered their insights on the power structure in the AFC East and some other some key offseason topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out if they saw the issues differently.
Which AFC East team is closest to catching the Patriots?
Rich Cimini: The Jets, no question about it. The Jets, Bills and Dolphins are three teams with question marks at quarterback -- and quarterback play is everything in the NFL. So why the Jets? When rating teams, I like to look at which ones can be dominant on at least one side of the ball. Clearly, the defenses of the Bills and Jets (ranked 10th and 11th, respectively) are the best units among the three Patriots-chasing teams. Beyond the stats, I'd give an edge to the Jets because their defensive line has a chance to be the most dominant position group in the division. And the Bills lost their best defensive player, safety Jairus Byrd. Another reason I'd pick the Jets is the coaching staff. Granted, Rex Ryan has missed the playoffs for three straight years, but he has a veteran staff that experienced little upheaval. Continuity is important. The Bills have a new defensive coordinator and the Dolphins ... well, that situation is dysfunctional.
Mike Rodak: The Patriots hardly tore through the division last season, losing to the Dolphins and Jets on the road, while nearly dropping their season opener in Buffalo. But it's difficult to see the other three teams contending for a division title until their quarterbacks emerge as quality NFL starters. In Miami, Ryan Tannehill showed flashes last season. It's hard to predict much of anything season to season in the NFL, but I think the Dolphins are the closest to contending. The Jets and Bills are not that far behind.
James Walker: My short answer is no AFC East team is ready to catch the Patriots in 2014. As long as Tom Brady is healthy and Bill Belichick is coaching, the Patriots will be the favorites to win the division. But the team with the smallest gap is the Dolphins. They have the most talented roster to challenge New England and the second-best quarterback in the division in Ryan Tannehill. Miami's problem is it can't stay out of its own way with infighting and in-house controversy. Last year, there was the bullying scandal and coach Joe Philbin had a falling out with former general manager Jeff Ireland. Miami still split with the Patriots, mostly because of talent. But how can the Dolphins win consistently when they're fighting themselves?
How justified is the AFC East's reputation as a weak division?
Cimini: I hate to say it, but it's justified. The division doesn't have much street cred these days. The Jets helped the cause with their little run there in 2009 and 2010, when Ryan was in his "I'm not kissing Belichick's rings" phase, but the AFC East has turned into a bottom-heavy division. Since 2011, the Jets are 22-26, the Dolphins are 21-27 and the Bills are 18-30. In that span, the teams not named the Patriots have combined for a grand total of zero playoff appearances. The Bills haven't made the playoffs since 1999, which is practically prehistoric. The Dolphins haven't made it since 2008. Records aside, the division lacks star power, save for Brady, Belichick & Co. Each team has a handful of good players, but we're not talking about guys with a lot of box-office appeal. Everything is cyclical in the NFL, so I'm sure things will swing the other way. But right now, the AFC East is in a state of depression -- except for the Patriots.
Rodak: Strength of divisions is always difficult to measure because it changes so often. The NFC West was considered a weak division for several years, but recently it has been the class of the NFL. The Seahawks groomed their young talent into a perennial playoff team, while the 49ers found a coach (Jim Harbaugh) who has brought his team to three consecutive NFC title games. They're a far cry from the Seahawks, but the Bills and Jets both had some of the NFL's youngest rosters last season. Let's see if those teams can make the next step before we label the AFC East as "weak." Plus, how many other divisions have a team that has been as dominant as the Patriots? That adds strength at the top of the division while making life tougher for everyone else.
Walker: Absolutely, the reputation is justified. I cannot think of another NFL division that was mostly owned by one team over the past dozen years. I've said since last summer that the 2013 Patriots were the weakest New England team in years. That Patriots group still won the AFC East by four games! That is more of an indication of poor football by the Jets, Dolphins and Bills than dominant football by New England. Here is all you need to know about the AFC East: No team other than New England has posted a winning record the past three seasons.
Ryan Tannehill, Geno Smith and EJ Manuel: Which young QB will still be his team's starter in three years?
Cimini: I'll be blunt: I'm not confident that any of the three young quarterbacks will be starting in three years. They all have talent, but each one was thrown into a difficult situation. Smith and Manuel were rushed into starting jobs, and Tannehill was under siege last season, behind the worst (and most dysfunctional) offensive line in the league. Out of this group, I'd say Tannehill probably has the most staying power. I'm not saying he will be a star, because I've seen him throw passes that conjure up images of Nuke LaLoosh of "Bull Durham" fame, but he has a decent amount of talent and moxie. That said, Tannehill has a new coordinator, and he could have another one next year if the Dolphins decide to blow up the coaching staff. The same could happen to Smith next year if things go sideways on the Jets. Continuity is vital for a young quarterback. So is the quality of his supporting cast. Smith could overtake Tannehill in this category if the Jets surround him with better players. That, undoubtedly, would accelerate his growth.
Rodak: The Bills, Dolphins and Jets have dealt with inconsistent quarterback play for the past decade. Of those three teams, only the Jets with Chad Pennington had a starter for more than three consecutive seasons since 2000. Three years is a very long time in the NFL -- enough time for young quarterbacks to see their stars rise and fall. Smith, Tannehill and Manuel were all high draft picks and have the potential to be long-term starters. Of the three, I think Smith is least likely to stick. Playing in New York can be tough, while the Jets' coaching situation remains volatile. The Bills might have the most stable environment for Manuel to grow, but his knee injuries are a concern. Tannehill has shown promise in Miami, but changes in the front office might bring different opinions. This might be radical, but I don't see any of the three quarterbacks starting in three years.
Walker: My first response hinted at my answer: I'm going with Tannehill, though the instability of the Dolphins' organization gives me pause. Joe Philbin might not be Miami's head coach in 2015, let alone in three years. That obviously impacts Tannehill's job security. However, I think Tannehill has the most pure talent of the three young quarterbacks. Tannehill set career highs in yards (3,913), touchdowns (24) and passer rating (81.7) last season. He also was sacked a franchise-record 58 times last season and had little help from the running game. I believe Tannehill can thrive with good pass protection and a stronger running game. He needs to work on his deep ball and make quicker decisions, but that might improve with time.
The Dolphins, Bills and Patriots each experienced noteworthy changes to their coaching staff. Which will have the greatest impact?
Cimini: The Patriots lost a beloved assistant coach, Dante Scarnecchia, but let's be honest: As long as Bill Belichick is the HC of the NEP, the Patriots will be a highly competitive team. Assistants and coordinators come and go, but the Patriots remain the Patriots because of one man. I think the Bills' coaching change -- Jim Schwartz as the new defensive coordinator -- will have the greatest impact in the division. True, the Bills took a big jump last season under the departed Mike Pettine, but they still stunk against the run. Schwartz will fix that. The Dolphins' new offensive coordinator, Bill Lazor, has a chance to make a big impact, but it won't happen right away. Why not? Because the Dolphins' offensive line is in shambles (maybe you heard about the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin mess), and no offensive genius has invented a scheme that works without efficient line play. They addressed it in free agency by signing Branden Albert, but there will be growing pains for the offense.
Rodak: I think the Patriots' changes are the least likely to have an impact given Bill Belichick's reputation to wield nearly absolute control. Assistant coaches come and go in New England, but Belichick keeps his staff small and his message consistent, so there typically isn't much change. It's a toss-up, then, between the Dolphins and Bills. The Bills have seen significant changes on their defensive coaching staff, but their personnel doesn't figure to change dramatically. The Dolphins have a new offensive coordinator, and while their skill positions could remain intact, their offensive line will be different next season. That, coupled with the need for a culture change after their bullying scandal last season, means the Dolphins' coaches have more to overcome this season.
Walker: I really like the addition of Jim Schwartz in Buffalo, and it goes beyond X's and O's. Schwartz brings head-coaching experience to Buffalo's coaching staff. Bills head coach Doug Marrone is entering his second year after a 6-10 record in 2013. There were some things last year that appeared a little too fast for him as a rookie head coach in the NFL -- and that's expected. Schwartz can help slow things down in Year 2 for Marrone, who is trying to make the transition from the college game. Schwartz experienced plenty of ups and downs with the Detroit Lions and can be a shoulder for Marrone to lean on. Mike Pettine also was a solid defensive coordinator, but he couldn't bring that element to Buffalo's staff.
@mikerodak Sherman for Lazor better have a huge gain or heads will roll in Miami- Rob (@420wong) March 11, 2014
The top need for the Miami Dolphins is very obvious right now. They need offensive line help in a big way, and while they are sure to be quite active on this front in free agency, more help will be needed through the draft.
But as it stands now, there doesn’t look like an obvious fit up front for Miami in the first round. That could mean the Dolphins go in a different direction and select one of the top defensive tackles to replace free agents-to-be Randy Starks and/or Paul Soliai. A safety also could be an option if Chris Clemons moves on in free agency. As they were a year ago, the Dolphins could be a prime candidate to move out of this pick if offensive line help isn’t available.
Physical and sexual threats about a teammate's mother and sister. Repeated and derogatory references to racial backgrounds. A $10,000 "fine" paid to other players for missing a group trip to Las Vegas.
Those are among the incidents that befell offensive lineman Jonathan Martin during his time with the Miami Dolphins, according to a report released Friday by NFL-appointed investigator Ted Wells. The subsequent question many will have: How typical is such behavior in an NFL locker room?
Green Bay Packers guard T.J. Lang took to Twitter in an attempt to distance his contemporaries from the tawdry details contained in the report, saying: "Please don't stereotype NFL players for what's going on with Miami. That type of stuff is not common in other locker rooms."
Is that truly the case? At any given time, there are 1,696 active players during an NFL season. I imagine each of them would have their own spin on that question. So on Friday I reached out to recently retired linebacker Ben Leber to get a sense of the true shock value here.
Leber, who played 10 seasons for three teams before his career ended in 2012, wasn't stunned to hear the details. During his career, I found Leber's interest in the psychology of the locker room to be particularly enlightening. As we talked Friday, Leber said the most noteworthy part of the report to him was a series of letters between Martin and his parents outlining his struggles -- none of which had been reported to teammates or the Dolphins' organization.
"That really gives you a candid insight into his mindset," Leber said. "In my mind, it exonerates a little bit of what was going on. It's not like they knew the mental turmoil he was experiencing. It looks like kind of a perfect storm to me. You had probably an amped-up locker room that was more extreme than most, and you have a guy in Jonathan Martin who realized how fragile his own mindset was. And then, it just so happens he is paired with an extremely aggressive kind of wheels-off offensive line crew that probably took it further than most guys do.
"But from their perspective, it sounds like they didn't do anything to intentionally harm him. They thought they were having fun. They're being 'bros' and figured this is what guys normally do. They might have gone above and beyond that in the end, because Jonathan didn't fight back, but they didn't know that he had these other issues and had been dealing with them since he was a juvenile [as detailed in the report]."
As wild as it sounds, Leber said he could see how some of the thousands of text messages between Martin and teammate Richie Incognito could devolve into such crude language, threats and personal attacks.
"I have two brothers who played sports," Leber said. "I think if people saw the text messages that we share between the three of us, they would be shocked. One says something off the wall, you go crasser and dirtier, and when it gets to a certain point, you 'win.' We all know each other. And I'm sure Richie and those guys thought they knew Jonathan."
We all want to believe this episode was in fact a perfect storm of circumstances. But as I wrote earlier Friday, the NFL and/or the Dolphins didn't have enough of an institutionalized boundary to protect against it. If the report is to be believed, none of the Dolphins' decision-makers were aware of interactions that ultimately left Martin contemplating suicide, and nothing stopped until Martin walked out on the team.
"To me," Leber said, "it's just a wake-up call to everybody in every locker room. We talk about players being respectful, treating the game with respect, but a lot of guys don't know what it means to respectful. The locker-room atmosphere, what we've known since high school and college, we don't truly respect people and we don't think about hurting people as a result."
Consider what Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said Wednesday morning on ESPN’s "First Take."
"The only person that I know that knows Richie Incognito personally said the day after (the story broke), ‘If Richie Incognito gets cut I’m walking upstairs and telling coach to pick him up,’ " Clark said. "He’s like, 'That’s the type of football player I want to play with. All of that stuff in the locker room, that’s how they act, that’s how they talked but as far as playing football I want you to play nasty, I want you to be like that.’ "
Clark did not reveal the name of the player who told him that, and it could well have been someone on other team with whom the veteran free safety is friendly. But it is reasonable to assume that there is a good chance Clark’s conversation took place with a Steelers teammate.
Would the Steelers have given any consideration to signing Incognito had the Dolphins released him last November? Not a chance.
But Clark's revelation shows a different side of NFL locker rooms, one in which players are able to separate or overlook behavior, no matter how coarse it is, from the business of winning games.
It is also consistent with how a significant number of players in the Dolphins’ locker room felt after offensive tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team last October and later leveled bullying charges against Incognito.
The accusations led to Incognito’s suspension -- it was lifted earlier this week -- and a host of Dolphins teammates defended him and backed Incognito’s claim that he and Martin were friends.
The recent release of text messages between the two, bawdy as they were, appear to support what Incognito has maintained all along and that there may have been a rush to judgment.
Clark did not defend Incognito or the offensive language he used freely around teammates.
But he questioned whether the physical and psychological stress of playing football had led to Martin breaking down and then scapegoating Incognito for his hasty exit from the Dolphins.
Clark recalled a conversation he had with former Dolphins executive vice president of football operations Bill Parcells in 2010 when he nearly signed with Miami as an unrestricted free agent.
"He said ‘One day Ryan you’re going to walk out of the huddle, it happens to every player, and you’re not going to want to hit the person on the other side of the ball and when that happens it’s time to let it go,’ " Clark said. "I just think Jonathan Martin got there earlier than most people do."
As for the NFL futures of both players, Clark said, "I think (Incognito) will get a chance before Jonathan Martin. The way he behaves is genuinely who he is where Jonathan Martin behaves more to me like a person who is being advised."
ESPN.com NFL Nation Dolphins reporter James Walker captures the atmosphere in the locker room after the team’s thrilling victory and how there is a feeling they can beat anyone, while ESPN.com NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss relays the disappointment on the Patriots’ side as they let an opportunity to clinch the AFC East slip away.
Miami and Pittsburgh are fighting for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, which is currently held by the Baltimore Ravens (6-6). The winner of Sunday’s game will remain firmly in the playoff hunt, while the loser falls behind the pack.
ESPN.com’s Dolphins reporter James Walker and Steelers reporter Scott Brown weigh in on who will prevail in this important game.
Walker: Scott, I think much of this game will be determined by the matchup between Miami’s ninth-ranked pass defense against Pittsburgh’s eight-ranked passing offense. This is a strength vs. strength clash. The Dolphins are very wary of Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Miami defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle knows Roethlisberger well from his days with the Cincinnati Bengals and has a healthy respect for “Big Ben.” He’s unlike any quarterback Miami has faced this season because of his ability to extend plays to throw deep, not necessarily to run for extra yards. There is a lot of pressure on Miami’s cornerbacks and safeties to maintain their coverage longer than usual to prevent big gains on broken plays.
Speaking of which, Steelers receiver Antonio Brown is Pittsburgh’s best playmaker, and leads the NFL in receptions. What makes him so dangerous?
Brown: It’s funny that Brown still doesn’t get his due as a No. 1 wide receiver, even from some media types in Pittsburgh, despite the phenomenal numbers he has put up this season. Brown might not have the size associated with No. 1 receivers, and he does not have blazing speed, but he has excellent quickness, is a superb route runner, and Roethlisberger has said he’s never seen a receiver who is able to adjust to a ball while it’s in the air the way Brown regularly does. Above all, Brown works at it. I mean really works at it. He is maniacal about training, and it’s not uncommon for Brown to hit the gym for a workout after spending all day at Steelers’ headquarters.
James, you have been immersed in one the biggest stories of the season, and I’m sure Steelers’ fans would appreciate your take on how the Dolphins have dealt with the turmoil and distractions caused by the Jonathan Martin bullying allegations. Have the Dolphins settled into any semblance of normalcy, or is their a new normal in Miami?
Walker: Things have been as close to normal this week as it's been since Martin left the team Oct. 28. There was a huge dark cloud hanging over the Dolphins, and things intensified and became very uptight the week NFL lead investigator Ted Wells visited the team. I expect things to be relatively calm for a couple more weeks until Wells completes the report and releases his findings. After that, all bets are off. There will be no winners in this complex situation. I don't expect Richie Incognito or Martin to return to Miami. So the Dolphins have already taken a hit. More heads could roll if others are found culpable.
Scott, one Dolphin who is excited about this matchup is former Steelers receiver Mike Wallace. What type of reception do you think he will receive, and how will Pittsburgh's secondary defend Wallace?
Brown: I think Wallace will hear his share of boos. I think he is perceived, fair or not, by a lot of Steelers fans as selfish and a player who did not produce enough last season or help the team chemistry because of his contract situation. I’m real interested to see how the Steelers try to defend Wallace. His speed is going to be a problem for a defensive backfield that has lost a collective step given the age of its starting safeties, not to mention top cornerback Ike Taylor.
Taylor usually draws the assignment of shadowing the opposing team’s No. 1 wide receiver, but I’m not sure the Steelers will do that with Wallace, since coach Mike Tomlin has a lot of respect for Brian Hartline as well. Whoever draws Wallace will get help from a safety, but he could have a big game at Heinz Field. The Steelers have given up seven passing plays of at least 50 yards this season, and I’m sure Wallace would love nothing more than to add to his former team’s total.
James, what are the early reviews on Wallace? It doesn’t seem like the Dolphins are getting the return from the investment they made in him, though I know it’s early.
Walker: It’s still a work in progress, Scott. Wallace hasn’t put up the production many in Miami expected, but there is plenty of blame to go around. Starting with Wallace, the drops are on him. Wallace had too many drops early in the season, although he’s gotten better in the second half of the year. But other factors such as scheme and quarterback Ryan Tannehill's inability to throw a consistent deep ball has made it tough for Wallace to make the same plays he made in Pittsburgh. Tannehill doesn’t have Roethlisberger’s arm strength or ability to extend plays. Wallace thrived off broken plays that Roethlisberger created. Tannehill doesn’t have near the same elusiveness and ability to out-throw the coverage. Wallace is getting open, but many of Tannehill’s deep balls have been underthrown, which allows defenders to recover. There are some things involved that Wallace cannot control. But he does have momentum coming into this game. Wallace has totaled 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns in his past two games. I expect him to be amped for Sunday.
Finally, Scott, what do you think of Pittsburgh’s playoff chances, and how it relates to this game?
Brown: In spite of the latest wave of injuries to hit the offensive line, I actually think the Steelers have a chance to win their final four games and make the playoffs -- if they get the help they are going to need with the Ravens. My outlook probably changes if Aaron Rodgers is playing quarterback in the Steelers’ Dec. 22 game at Green Bay. But if the Packers drop out of playoff contention, does Rodgers play against the Steelers? That is a big if as of right now.
Green Bay is the only remaining road game for the Steelers, so the schedule sets up favorably, especially given Rodgers’ uncertain status. Roethlisberger is really locked in right now, and I think he is capable of carrying the Steelers and masking a lot of problems assuming an offensive line that is held together by duct tape can do a reasonable job of protecting him.
Two teams battling for playoff positioning will face off Sunday when the Carolina Panthers travel to play the Miami Dolphins.
Carolina (7-3) is one of the hottest teams in the NFL behind a stout defense and improved play from quarterback and MVP candidate Cam Newton. The Dolphins (5-5) have fought through off-the-field distractions to win two of their past three games and are just a tiebreaker behind the New York Jets for the final wild-card spot in the AFC.
Who will prevail? ESPN Panthers reporter David Newton and Dolphins reporter James Walker weigh in.
James Walker: This looks like a game of matchups. One that looks concerning from Miami's perspective is Carolina's aggressive, physical defense against the Dolphins' inconsistent offense. The Dolphins are still searching for an offensive identity 10 games into their season. There is nothing they do particularly well on that side of the football: Miami is ranked 20th in passing and 24th in rushing. In fact, the Dolphins haven't scored more than 27 points in a game all season.
Is Carolina's defense as good as advertised? What kind of challenge can Miami's offense expect?
David Newton: It's hard to argue the numbers Carolina's defense has put up, particularly against the run, allowing just 84.5 yards per game. The front seven is as good as there is at making a game one-dimensional and forcing teams to pass; the defensive line can apply pressure on the quarterback, which allows seven, and sometimes eight, to drop back into coverage. It's really an unselfish group that is working as well together as any unit I've seen this season. The return of defensive tackle Dwan Edwards from a hamstring injury three weeks ago has added a more consistent third-down inside pass rush and made this unit even stronger. The defense that helped the 2003 Panthers get to the Super Bowl was good, but I believe this one is better.
The Dolphins bounced back from the loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with a solid effort at San Diego. Has this team put the off-the-field issues behind it completely?
Walker: I wouldn't say completely, because the investigation is ongoing. I don't see an end to the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin saga for at least several more weeks, if not longer. The NFL spent a lot of time at the Dolphins' training facility this week to try to get to the bottom of things, and the NFLPA will reportedly do its own investigation soon.
I thought Miami handled this situation better against San Diego, and it showed in the Dolphins' preparation. Miami put together a focused effort to pick up a big win. I think the team was a bit shell-shocked by the circumstances and the amount of media scrutiny leading up to the Tampa Bay game when everything first came out. It's really going to be a week-to-week scenario with the Dolphins as this investigation unfolds.
Carolina is coming off a short week of preparation after winning a thriller against the New England Patriots on "Monday Night Football." Is this a concern, especially going on the road, where the Panthers are 3-2?
Newton: The short week shouldn't be a problem. They had a Thursday night game a few weeks ago at Tampa and played well for having only a few days of preparation. The coaching staff has really gotten into a groove with knowing when to go hard and when to back off in practice. From a defensive standpoint, because they don't rely on a lot of fancy formations with the front four so solid, it really just comes down to tweaking things for individual matchups.
The biggest issue might be from wear and tear. They played three games in a span of 12 days a few weeks ago, and they're coming off consecutive games against San Francisco and New England, elite teams that really get after you.
Speaking of physical teams, what problems will Miami's defense cause Newton and the Carolina offense?
Walker: Miami's defense has been an enigma. There is talent and depth, especially in the front seven, but the defense hasn't lived up to its potential. The Dolphins' best chance to rattle Newton is to stop Carolina's running game and make the Panthers one-dimensional. That's a tall order. I thought Miami's defense had the talent on paper to be top 10 against the run, but that's far from the case. The Dolphins are 25th against the run.
But in games when the Dolphins have earned a second-half lead, their pass rush has been able to cause problems. Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Wake is healthy again and back to his old self; he has four sacks in his past three games and 6.5 overall. Fellow defensive end Olivier Vernon (5.5 sacks) has been a pleasant surprise. The Dolphins have four players with three sacks or more this season. They have the ability to pin their ears back and get to the quarterback. But the Dolphins haven't had enough leads late in games.
David, one area in which Carolina has struggled is its 28th-ranked passing offense. How can the Panthers improve?
Newton: Carolina's ranking is a bit misleading. The key number is Newton's efficiency. He's completing a much higher percentage of passes -- 63.2 -- than in his previous two seasons. He's also throwing more short passes as the offense goes with more ball control. He's more or less taking what defenses are giving him better than he has before. Because the Panthers are so balanced in rushing and passing, Newton's passing yards are down. But they have deep threats when they need them in Steve Smith and Ted Ginn. They just haven't needed them because, for most of the past two months, they've been getting big leads and running more.
James, my last question to you is, do you believe the Dolphins are a playoff team?
Walker: The Dolphins feel confident because they are still in the hunt. They are just a tiebreaker behind the Jets, and the teams still have two games against one another. But I haven't seen any consistency from Miami since its 3-0 start. Since then, the Dolphins have gone 2-5, so there isn't much reason to believe they can go 5-1 or 4-2 down the stretch to get into the playoffs. Miami has a huge three-week stretch ahead, with Carolina and games at the Jets and at Pittsburgh. All of these games are going to be tough.
Both teams sit at 4-5 and a game behind the New York Jets (5-4) for the last wild-card spot in the AFC. A setback on Sunday could drastically affect the losing team's playoff fortunes for the rest of the season.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, nine teams playing in Week 11 are either 4-5 or 5-4. Under the current playoff format which began in 1990, only 7 percent of teams to start 4-6 went on to make the playoffs. That number jumps to 29 percent for teams starting 5-5.
So the team that improves to the .500 mark has much better odds of grabbing a postseason berth.
ESPN.com Chargers reporter Eric D. Williams and Dolphins reporter James Walker break down the matchup.
Walker: Eric, with Philip Rivers' numbers, you would think San Diego would have a better record. What's gone wrong?
Williams: That's a fair question. Rivers is having one of his best seasons of his 10-year career. He's first in the NFL in completion percentage (71.6 percent), second in quarterback rating (72.6), fifth in total passing yards (2,691) and fifth in passing touchdowns (18). Where San Diego has struggled is finishing games and playing consistently on the defensive side of the ball. Three of San Diego's five losses have come in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter or in overtime. The Chargers are allowing a league-worst 6.4 yards per play. Opponents are converting 42 percent of the time against San Diego's defense on third down, which is 27th in the league. And San Diego's defense has forced a league-low six turnovers this season.
The Dolphins are losers of five of their past six games, and appear to be struggling in dealing with the distraction created by the Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin situation. James, what's the situation like in the locker room? And can Miami's players solely focus on playing against San Diego on Sunday?
Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a good face on the situation. But truthfully, it's weighing on them. More than anything, players are constantly peppered with questions about Martin and Incognito, who are currently not with the team. There have been reporters here from CNN, ABC News and other major news outlets to find out what is going on in Miami's locker room.
On the field, Miami lost two of its top starters on the offensive line. It's not a coincidence the Dolphins rushed for a franchise-low 2 yards in Monday's loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The Dolphins' offensive line was dominated. I also don't think it's a coincidence Miami started the game flat and fell behind 15-0 early. I think the Dolphins are shaken up right now, and I'm not sure which team to expect on Sunday.
Is it possible Miami is a trap game for San Diego with the Chiefs coming up next?
Williams: The Chargers are not in a position to overlook anyone. San Diego has defeated just one team with a winning record this season -- Indianapolis. And with the loss to Denver, the Chargers are in the middle of a two-game losing streak for the first time this season. West Coast teams traveling to the East Coast traditionally struggle, although San Diego is 2-1 in those contests this season. The Chargers understand if they want to hold on to postseason aspirations they have to win games like this one on Sunday, so the Dolphins will have their full attention.
What's your evaluation of the progression of Ryan Tannehill in his second season?
Walker: Tannehill got off to a fast start during Miami's 3-0 run. But since then he's been average and too turnover prone. Tannehill has most of the tools you want in a quarterback. But he also has some weaknesses that are concerning. Tannehill's deep ball and pocket presence must improve if he wants to take the next step.
However, I sometimes refrain from fully evaluating Tannehill because his supporting cast is so inconsistent. As I mentioned earlier, the running game produced all of 2 yards on Monday. How can a quarterback win with that kind of production? The offensive line is the weakest unit on the team, and Tannehill has been sacked 37 times already this season. Both of those factors have led to a lot of his mistakes.
How much will the time change to 4:05 p.m. ET help the Chargers?
Williams: It should help players adjust their body clock to the time change. The Chargers usually travel on Friday for East Coast games, and will do so again this week. San Diego coach Mike McCoy also holds morning practices, so the players are used to getting up and practicing around that time. Although it's sunny in San Diego, there will be more humidity for the players to deal with in Miami. So players are making sure they drink enough water this week so they do not get dehydrated on Sunday. The late afternoon kickoff could help with that.
At 4-5, Miami is one of a handful of teams fighting for a wild-card spot in the AFC. In his second season, does coach Joe Philbin have what it takes to lead the Dolphins to the team's first playoff berth since the 2008 season?
Walker: An NFL head coach usually gets three years to implement his program and prove his worth. But due to extenuating circumstances with the Incognito-Martin scandal, the time is now for Philbin. How Philbin handles these final seven games and leads Miami through adversity will say a lot about his future. He is 11-14 as a head coach since taking over in 2012, which is not good enough. The NFL investigation also is a huge concern for the entire organization. If Philbin and his staff were part of any wrongdoing, jobs could be lost. The Dolphins remain in the playoff hunt. But it's hard to view them as a serious contender after they just lost to the winless Buccaneers.
Incognito, who has been suspended indefinitely by the Dolphins for his part in a bullying scandal that has swept over the league and saw Martin leave the team, has received public support from many of his teammates in recent days, including quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Support for Incognito has run thin in other locker rooms, though. The survey, which was released Friday afternoon, found that only 21 percent of NFL players would consider Incognito a good teammate. Another 47 percent believe Martin was the better teammate.
And then there's that other 32 percent who don't side with either one. In their eyes, both Martin and Incognito were at fault in this situation that has already spilled over into its second week of games. Their thinking, it seems, is that Martin could be tougher, and that Incognito should have had a better grasp on what specifically he was saying or doing to a particular teammate.
"It's all about knowing personalities," was the way one Cincinnati Bengals player put it.
To that player, who was one of the 23 respondents who said both Martin and Incognito were poor teammates, there were no "real men" in this incident.
"That's the thing about this locker room," he said, speaking of the Bengals. "We have real men in here. There's none of this fake, facade thing where you don't know what you're getting. If I have a problem with one of my teammates, I let him know. We all let each other know. You've got to talk."
Both Martin and Incognito would make bad teammates, according to this Bengals player, because "one was too soft and one was too aggressive." The player bemoaned the fact that there was seemingly no middle ground between Martin and Incognito. Since neither appeared to properly hold the other in check, he didn't feel comfortable saying he wanted either to be his teammate.
His sentiments were echoed by another Bengals player who also questioned Martin's ability to stand up for himself, while also wondering how Incognito thought it was OK to leave the type of messages laced with racial epithets and profanities on Martin's phone that he did.
In addition to the bullying issue, the issue of hazing, both financially and physically, has come up this week because of the scenario that's playing out in South Florida.
The first Bengals player said he felt a measure of hazing occurred in the league, and that when he was a rookie, he spent as much as $10,000 on dinners purchased for teammates. He said he viewed the purchases as the equivalent of "a tax write-off."
"It will all come back to you," the Bengals player said. "That's the thing you have to realize is that it'll all come back."
Asked to explain that comment, the player said that form of hazing was just one way of having the young players feeling they belonged to something bigger than themselves. Near the end of the year, he said players on that team all bought one another Christmas presents as a way of making sure no one on the team felt they were investing so much externally without feeling that they weren't part of the team.
It should be pointed out that this player did not begin his career in the Bengals organization. Other players who did had vastly different and much less expensive rookie seasons. The other Bengals player mentioned above said he helped pitch in to buy chicken from Popeye's for veterans when he first arrived to Cincinnati. He figured he might have spent $50 helping with the whole meal.
With so much still unknown in the Incognito-Martin story, it's tough to say who is completely right and who is completely wrong at this point. What is known, though, is that there are a lot of NFL players who wouldn't lose any sleep if either player never stepped foot in another locker room again.
The recent incident involving Miami offensive linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito has dominated the headlines. Earlier in the season, the Bucs were in the news as the rift between coach Greg Schiano and quarterback Josh Freeman erupted, and Tampa Bay continues to draw attention after three players were diagnosed with MRSA infections.
But, on Monday night, the Dolphins and Bucs finally will be in the football spotlight as they play in a nationally televised game. ESPN.com Dolphins reporter James Walker and Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas discuss the matchup.
Pat Yasinskas: James, the Martin-Incognito situation has been one of the biggest stories of the season. How much of a distraction has it been for the other Miami players?
James Walker: The Dolphins are trying to put a decent spin on things this week. However, you can tell it’s weighing on them. Players are genuinely upset that it came down to this. They felt Martin could have handled this differently, and in a way that was better for the team, himself and Incognito. I would think most people outside of Miami’s locker room would find issues with that line of thinking. But it’s really within the NFL culture to think week-to-week and how to win games immediately. This has been an interesting case study on NFL locker rooms and how it relates real societal issues.
Pat, the Buccaneers have had their own share of drama this season. How is Tampa Bay handling its various issues at 0-8?
Yasinskas: James, things finally seem to have settled down a little bit the past week or two. But, for the longest time, it seemed as if the Bucs had a fresh controversy every day. The Freeman saga was nothing short of a soap opera, and the MRSA is a very serious issue. Cornerback Darrelle Revis has admitted the Bucs have been affected by the distractions. Throw in the fact that the Bucs are 0-8 and have lost several games they should have won, and it appears as if there’s a situation that could blow up at any time. But the one thing the Bucs have going for them is that they still are playing hard.
All right, let’s move to some on-the-field stuff. How are the Dolphins going to adjust their offensive line?
Walker: Here is the interesting thing about Miami's offensive line: It wasn't good with Martin and Incognito. Ryan Tannehill is the most-sacked quarterback in the NFL at the midpoint of the season, and, until two weeks ago, the running game was hit-or-miss. So, yes, on the surface, the Dolphins lost two starters on the offensive line. However, the bar set by the old group wasn't very high. Tyson Clabo will start for Martin at right tackle and Nate Garner at left guard. They're capable of holding up the same standard, but it remains to be seen whether they can do better.
Speaking of better, how much has the quarterback play improved with Mike Glennon? Can he become the long-term solution?
Yasinskas: Glennon has shown gradual improvement in each game. He’s been poised and has shown more mobility than most people thought he had. He has gone three straight games without an interception, which is a major accomplishment for a guy who has only five career starts. Schiano is very high on Glennon, and that admiration goes back to when Schiano tried (unsuccessfully) to recruit the quarterback to Rutgers. If Schiano sticks around, I think he views Glennon as his long-term answer at quarterback. But, with the way the Bucs are losing games, there is no guarantee Schiano will be back next season. A new coach might not be as high on Glennon as Schiano.
Speaking of long-term answers, has Tannehill shown enough to convince the Dolphins he can develop into a top-line starter?
Walker: I like what Tannehill brings to the table. However, this season has been challenging to evaluate because of all the troubles on the offensive line. Tannehill has a few holes in his game, such as poor pocket presence, suspect ball security and an average deep ball. Maybe some of those can be corrected with experience. This is a big eight-game stretch for Tannehill and his long-term future in Miami. That important period starts Monday night.