The Miami Dolphins just released their training camp schedule today, but it’s never too early to begin looking ahead to some of their biggest matchups this season.
These things are incredibly hard to judge. The NFL is such a week-by-week league and there is no telling which games will become more significant as the season plays out.
But it’s a fun exercise nonetheless. And for those in the market of buying tickets, particularly before the season starts, these five games could prove to be some of Miami’s most crucial of the year.
To keep this interesting, I’m limiting the list to only two divisional showdowns. AFC East foes, regardless of how talented, will always be the Dolphins’ most important contests.
5. @ Cleveland Browns (Week 1)
How exactly does a team that’s not expected to contend for a playoff spot make this list? It’s simple, really: The Dolphins’ first five games before their bye week appear incredibly daunting. The exception, of course, is the Browns.
For that very reason, Miami must take care of business in Week 1. The Dolphins can’t afford to lose in Cleveland when the Colts, Falcons, Saints and Ravens await in succeeding weeks.
Three of those teams were playoff teams a year ago, with the Ravens, of course, winning it all. And even though the Saints missed the playoffs in 2012, they could arguably be the best team of the bunch with head coach Sean Payton returning to the sideline.
A loss to the Browns and Miami fans will undoubtedly begin to panic and the fear of starting the season 0-5 will slowly creep in.
4. @ Indianapolis Colts (Week 2)
No, I’m not simply going in order. Following the opener in Cleveland, the Dolphins will have another huge game, perhaps the biggest of their pre-bye season.
The Colts, unlike the Browns, are a legitimate contender and will be fierce competition in the AFC playoff race. An early season road victory over a playoff-caliber team would be validation for the improved Dolphins.
Ryan Tannehill and Andrew Luck–two of the AFC’s most promising young quarterbacks–could be on the verge of becoming rivals.
Round one went to Luck last season as the Colts narrowly defeated the Dolphins in Indianapolis. Luck drubbed Miami’s secondary on his way to 433 passing yards and a NFL rookie record.
This game will serve as an excellent measuring stick for Tannehill. Has he caught up to Luck with a year of experience and improved pass catchers? Week 2 should provide some answers.
3. vs. Cincinnati Bengals (Week 9)
The Dolphins haven’t won a prime-time game in four years. Since a 2009 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football, Miami has dropped six consecutive nationally televised games.
The NFL awarded the Dolphins three prime-time contests this season. Only the Bengals coming to town for a Thursday night game on Halloween will be at home, though.
Sun Life Stadium has been far from rocking in recent years, but it’s still at it’s finest under the lights. The Dolphins would love to reward the home crowd with a big win on national television.
Beating a franchise that has been to the playoffs the past two seasons and figures to be in the mix for a third-consecutive trip wouldn’t hurt either.
2. vs. New York Jets (Week 17)
The Jets are expected to be one of the league’s bottom-feeders this season, but they’ll be looking to play spoiler to their rivals in this Week 17 matchup.
There’s a chance this game won’t mean much for either team. Playoff spots could already be locked up or both franchises could be out of contention. But odds are, if the Dolphins are going to live up to expectations and at least challenge for a wild-card spot, plenty will be at stake on the final week of the regular season.
For the Dolphins, nothing would be sweeter than locking up a playoff spot against their most-hated rival. Likewise, nothing would be more demoralizing than losing this game to this team and missing out on the tournament.
1. vs. New England Patriots (Week 15)
The Dolphins can’t afford to be swept by the Patriots for the fourth consecutive season if they honestly want to contend for the division crown.
Miami has improved on paper. New England has worsened on paper. But what’s on paper doesn’t mean much.
The Dolphins will have to prove they’ve closed the gap on the field. Week 15 at home will be their best opportunity to do so. This game could serve as the essential AFC East title game if the Dolphins have their way and could potentially be flexed to Sunday night.
It’s hard to envision a more important game on the 2013 slate, especially with playoff implications.