Season outlook: It’s time for Dolphins to finally win a playoff game — and maybe go further

One step was taken in 2022, with the Miami Dolphins returning to the postseason for the first time since the 2016 season.

Now, it’s time for the franchise to take the next step and win a playoff game, which would be a first since the  2000 season. Or maybe even go beyond that, competing for an AFC title — or possibly a Super Bowl.

But anything short of a playoff victory and divisional-round berth to be one of the NFL’s last eight teams standing come January, would be perceived as a failure, considering the resources the Dolphins have dumped into creating a team ready to win now.

Miami has gone all-in the past two offseasons, pivoting from the rebuild of multiple first- and second-round picks in consecutive years to trading high draft selections for established veterans.

This offseason, the marquee move was trading for former Los Angeles Rams star cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The Dolphins, though, were dealt their first bit of adversity in 2023 on the second day of training camp in late July when Ramsey injured the meniscus in his left knee. Surgery will keep him out until at least December, but his return could make a late-season and postseason impact.

Before Ramsey, the Dolphins made last offseason’s acquisitions of blazing wide receiver Tyreek Hill via a trade with the Kansas City Chiefs and standout left tackle Terron Armstead in free agency. At last season’s trade deadline, they acquired edge rusher Bradley Chubb from the Denver Broncos.

All those pieces have now had more time together heading into 2023, working with Miami’s own homegrown core that includes quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, cornerback Xavien Howard, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, defensive tackles Christian Wilkins and Zach Sieler, outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips, safety Jevon Holland, guard Robert Hunt and inside linebacker Jerome Baker.

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, working with this loaded roster, can build off what he learned in his first season leading the franchise. He made his first major change to his coaching staff this offseason, landing the highly coveted Vic Fangio as defensive coordinator to replace Josh Boyer.

Miami has seen its other sports franchises excel this year — from Finals runs for the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers to Final Four berths for the University of Miami and FAU men’s basketball teams, along with Inter Miami acquiring Lionel Messi and the Marlins in the midst of a decent baseball season. The Dolphins enter with expectations this NFL season, and the city’s first professional team sport champion is in position to deliver once again.

Three keys for successful this season

Keep Tua Tagovailoa upright and healthy

The Dolphins quarterback showed last year he can play in coach Mike McDaniel’s system with playmakers like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in the passing game. Compounding on his league-leading 105.5 passer rating, 3,548 passing yards, 25 touchdowns and eight interceptions in 2022, he needs to make sure he’s getting the ball out before he takes hits and the offensive line needs to protect him. His health and availability are the bigger concern in 2023 after multiple concussion protocol stints last season. In line with that, Miami needs left tackle Terron Armstead playing as much as possible to anchor the offensive line.

Experience a defensive resurgence

New defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s array of zone coverages and more selective use of the blitz should help a Dolphins defense that finished the 2022 regular season 30th in takeaways, 27th in pass defense, 24th in scoring defense and third-down defense and 18th in total defense under Josh Boyer. He has the pieces in place between a front seven that looked dominant for much of training camp and a secondary that should have enough talent to remain afloat until top offseason acquisition Jalen Ramsey returns in December. But Xavien Howard needs to return to No. 1 cornerback form, and it’d be nice if rookie Cam Smith emerges quickly.

Use the run game

One thing McDaniel wishes he did a little more in 2022 was have Tagovailoa turn around and hand the ball off to his running backs more often. It was his trademark in San Francisco before he landed the head coaching gig. Now, after having both Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. go for nearly 5 yards per carry last season, he needs to go to the ground game more than last year’s second-least amount of times in the league. Speedy rookie third-round pick De’Von Achane gives Miami another tailback to give touches.

Three crucial games

Week 18 vs. Buffalo, Jan. 6 or 7

Could an AFC East title be on the line when the Dolphins host the Bills in the regular-season finale? This is precisely the opportunity Miami is shooting for as Buffalo enters 2023 on a three-year streak as division champs. And winning the division is the difference between being at home or on the road in the wild-card round of the playoffs. The Miami heat and humidity will play much less of a factor than it did in last year’s Week 3 game against the Bills, but the Dolphins also avoid the western New York snow when they visit Buffalo on Oct. 1.

Week 12 at New York, Nov. 24

It’s the first Black Friday game in NFL history and the Dolphins’ first crack at the new-look Jets with Aaron Rodgers at quarterback. They also get the Jets again at home three weeks later, and those two matchups will be pivotal in an ultra-competitive AFC East. Before Miami can set up a potential finale for the division crown in Week 18, the Dolphins must first assure they stave off New York from leapfrogging them for second in the AFC East.

Week 9 at Kansas City (in Frankfurt, Germany), Nov. 5

The Dolphins go international in 2023, and it comes against the defending Super Bowl champs. They benefit from a road game being played on a neutral site, and it will be a major midseason barometer of where this team stands in terms of ability to contend. Tyreek Hill should be amped to face his former team. It also says a lot about how many big games the Dolphins play in 2023 when two “Sunday Night Football” appearances and a Monday night game — or Christmas Eve against the Cowboys — don’t crack the top three.