Habib: Even with playoffs in sight, Miami Dolphins still must navigate minefields

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post
Dolphins receiver Isaiah Ford celebrates with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick after the Dolphins stunned the Raiders 26-25 to enhance their playoff chances Saturday night.

We’re just months away from the Dolphins bidding farewell to Nova Southeastern University, their training facility since 1993, soon to be replaced by a $135 million complex adjacent to Hard Rock Stadium.

If only the new facility were up and running today, it would require players to pass that long line of cars on Don Shula Drive daily.

Odd as it may sound, that sight — people waiting to get tested for COVID outside the stadium — would serve as a cautionary tale that being this close to the playoffs is one thing, being in the playoffs is another. Because, as we’ll explain momentarily, blocking and tackling is a good way to reach the postseason — but so is masking.

Monday morning, South Florida awoke to see there are four paths that would send the Dolphins into the playoffs. Miami would have to go 0-4 on these variables to get shut out. What are the odds of that?

Myles Gaskin is on his way to a touchdown against the Raiders Saturday night as cornerback Trayvon Mullen chases in vain.

According to the experts who make a living at such things, the odds are probably not what you think.

Despite having won 10 games, the Dolphins would be finished if the Bills, Ravens, Browns and Colts all win next Sunday.

The favorites next Sunday? The Bills, Ravens, Browns and Colts.

Ah, but in this any-given-Sunday league, what are the chances there isn’t an upset? Especially in Week 17, when you never know who’s being rested and who’s looking forward to a long winter’s rest? If last weekend is any indication, one-third of the games produced an upset.

The biggest head-scratcher was Jets 23, Browns 16, which ended any fears that the Dolphins would have to put up with Trevor Lawrence in Jets green. Baker Mayfield, whose fumble sealed Cleveland’s fate, said he “failed” his team, even though there was ample blame to go around.

Remember the earlier mention of COVID testing in the Hard Rock Stadium parking lot? In another parking lot — outside a New Jersey hotel — the Browns were holding an emergency walk-through early Sunday to try to get last-second practice-squad call-ups up to speed. The Browns lost their four top receivers, including ex-Dolphin Jarvis Landry, because of high-risk contact with linebacker B.J. Goodson, who tested positive for COVID-19.

That contact took place in and around the Browns’ recovery tub, where at least one player reportedly wasn’t wearing a mask correctly. This put the Browns in the same boat/tub as the Ravens, who were fined $250,000 by the league for violating COVID protocols, which are being ever tightened so this season can beat the virus across the finish line.

Is it any wonder that coach Brian Flores stays on his Dolphins to remain vigilant? Just last week when the topic was broached, Flores all but grimaced.

“I think overall, it’s been good, as long as guys follow the protocols, make the sacrifices and make smart decisions,” Flores said. “We’re still in it, though. We’re not done by any stretch of the imagination, so we’ve all got to continue to be smart and make good decisions and not feel like, ‘Oh, it’s been good so far, so we’re OK.’ I don’t even like to talk about how good it’s been. We need to just continue to do the things we’ve been doing so that we talk about whatever it is at the end. So hopefully you didn’t jinx it.”

There isn’t a soul in the league who doesn’t want this decided by positive results on the field, not the lab. As for the four games in question, the Dolphins can end all doubt by taking care of the Bills in Buffalo on Sunday. But they’re 1-7 in their past eight tries in that frigid, drab stadium and are early four-point underdogs, even though the Bills have clinched the AFC East title.

But what about the other three games that could affect the Dolphins?

Pittsburgh at Cleveland matches a struggling team that revived itself in time to rally from 17 points down (the Steelers) vs. a team that — we must remind ourselves — lost to the Jets. (Side note: Kevin Stefanski’s coach of the year candidacy had to take a hit, which should help Flores’ chances. Stefanski said he was outcoached by Adam Gase.)

The Steelers have won six of the past 10 trips to Cleveland, but betonline.ag lists the Browns as 7 1/2-point favorites, likely on the assumption Mike Tomlin will rest some Steelers.

Jacksonville at Indianapolis? The Colts, who blew that 24-7 lead against Pittsburgh, are favored by 14.

Baltimore at Cincinnati? With Lamar Jackson looking like Lamar Jackson again, the Ravens are on their usual late hot streak, having won four in a row. They’re 11-point favorites, but watch out. They’re 2-9 in the past 11 trips to Cincy and at one point lost eight straight there.

That about sums it up as far as the tea leaves for the Dolphins’ chances, which fivethirtyeight.com on Monday afternoon pinpointed at 74 percent.

Of course, Nate Silver’s fancy thingamajig can’t predict who’ll be next to take the Dwayne Haskins challenge and double-dare COVID-19 just as their teammates need them most.

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