The last time the Miami Dolphins made the playoffs, Chad Pennington was the team's starting quarterback. Since then, the Dolphins have only managed to be .500 in two seasons, winning eight games in 2013 and 2014. Over the past two years, the question has been if and when Miami would take the next step and finally get over that eight-win hump. Could 2015 be the year?
There are a number of reasons why the answer to that question might be yes. First of all, the Dolphins seem to have finally found their quarterback in Ryan Tannehill. Before Tannehill's arrival in 2012, the Dolphins were mainly unstable at quarterback, starting players like Chad Henne, Matt Moore, Daunte Culpepper, Trent Green and Joey Harrington, all without finding any success. Tannehill won the starting job right away as a rookie, and the arrow seems to be pointing up for the young quarterback, who threw for 4,045 yards, 27 touchdowns and just 12 interceptions this past season.
Miami has also reworked their wide receiving corps heading into 2015. Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline have both been replaced. The elusive Kenny Stills and the up-and-coming Jarvis Landry now appear to be Tannehill's top two weapons. Running back Lamar Miller could also be due for a breakout season after rushing for 1,099 yards and averaging 5.1 yards per carry in 2014.
With all that said, the Dolphins' biggest reason for optimism can be found on the defensive side of the ball. The Dolphins made the biggest splash (pun intended) in this year's free agency period, signing defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh away from Detroit. Suh was arguably the best free agent available this year, and now that he's brought his talents to South Beach, the Dolphins' already stout defensive line now looks even more formidable.
This mid-November meeting marks the first game of a Florida double-dip for the Eagles, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers await the following week. The Eagles have gone 7-1 in the month of November over the past two seasons and are undefeated at home during that stretch. The Dolphins will be the first team to put that streak to the test in 2015.
This game is likely to become a lot more interesting once we know the identity of the No. 1 overall pick in next week's NFL Draft. If it's Jameis Winston, then the Eagles will have their first crack at the one-time Heisman Trophy winner as he looks to turn around a moribund Bucs offense. If the pick is Marcus Mariota, then, well, then this will be a game to circle on the calendar. If the pick is someone else, or it's traded, then forget the beginning of this paragraph.
Regardless of who goes first overall, the Buccaneers are certain to look much different than the team that finished a league-worst 2-14 in Lovie Smith's first season on the job. In 2014, Tampa Bay finished 29th in scoring and 30th in total offense. They didn't fare much better when breaking it down further, as they finished in the bottom 10 in every offensive category, including 29th in rushing and 25th in passing (you can see why they need a quarterback). But a lot of that also had to do with an offensive line that has 33-year-old left guard Logan Mankins and … not much else. Consider this game an opportunity for Fletcher Cox and the Eagles defensive line to make a serious impact.
Where the Eagles defense will be tested, though, is down the field, where the giant combination of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will threaten to make big plays all afternoon long. These are the games for which the Eagles spent the big bucks on Byron Maxwell in free agency.
Despite Smith's background as a defensive magician and standout players like linebacker Lavonte David and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the Bucs fared little better on defense. They allowed over 25 points per game (28th in the league) and struggled especially in pass coverage. Jordan Matthews, Zach Ertz and crew should then relish the opportunity to make plays downfield on this Sunday afternoon at Lincoln Financial Field.
The hope for the Eagles will be to get this game over with quickly and efficiently, because they'll be staring at a short week on the back end – a Thanksgiving trip to Detroit.
BirdDay was such a rousing success in 2014 that the league gifted Eagles fans another Thanksgiving Day by the TV. But this time it'll be the early game as the Eagles take on a Detroit Lions team that is looking to improve on its crushing playoff loss in the Wild Card round last season.
The last time these two teams met, of course, was one of the most memorable games in recent Eagles history when the good guys ran over the visiting Lions 34-20 in blizzard-like conditions in what became known as the Snow Bowl.
But much has changed since then and much will surely change between now and Thanksgiving. What we expect, though, is that the Lions will still run their offense through Calvin Johnson, putting Byron Maxwell back on high alert (welcome to life as a No. 1 corner).
On the other side of the ball, the interior of the Eagles offensive line will breathe a collective sigh of relief knowing they'll have to line up against neither Ndamukong Suh nor Nick Fairley, who both departed via free agency. Of course, Haloti Ngata is no walk in the park (sorry, Jason Kelce, welcome to life as a center).
The Lions featured the league's very best run defense in 2014, thanks in large part to Suh and Fairley, but they'll have their sights set on stopping DeMarco Murray, Ryan Mathews, Darren Sproles and the dynamic Eagles rushing attack. That will be the matchup to watch as the two sides go to battle on a short week.
The Eagles defensive line will look to provide the stuffing of their own against a Lions offense that finished 29th in rushing yards per play in 2014 (3.6 yards per carry). Gone is Reggie Bush, but former Eagle Joique Bell is a capable runner in his own right. The Lions will also likely add to the position in the upcoming NFL Draft at some point (they own the 23rd overall pick).
But matchups aside, this game is all about gathering around with family and watching two potential playoff teams face off. And afterwards, you can root against the Cowboys before succumbing to the food-coma nap.
For the past two seasons, the Eagles and New England Patriots have held joint practices prior to meeting in the preseason.
This year, the two sides will battle in a regular season showdown at Gillette Stadium to kick off the month of December in a nationally televised affair. The Eagles will be coming off of their Thanksgiving feast in Detroit with a few extra days to let the stuffing and pie settle before heading to Foxborough.
The Patriots are the defending Super Bowl champions after rallying from behind with 14 unanswered points in the fourth quarter and relying on Malcolm Butler's storybook interception to capture the franchise's fourth Super Bowl championship.
There are so many savory subplots to this matchup.
Head coach Chip Kelly is a native of the New England region and a good friend of Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. In fact, Kelly has been compared to Belichick and the Super Bowl champion head coach has lavishly praised the program that is being built in Philadelphia.
The biggest reason why Belichick has won four Super Bowls in New England is Tom Brady, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who at 37 years old remains one of the best in the game.
The challenge for defensive coordinator Bill Davis' defense will be two-fold. First, can the Eagles come up with a way to disrupt Brady's timing? Second, how do the Eagles defend Rob Gronkowski? The 6-6, 265-pound All-Pro tight end is a mismatch nightmare all over the field. He hauled in 82 receptions for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. In fact, Gronkowski has at least 10 touchdowns in four of his first five NFL seasons.
The Patriots will have to come up with some answers of their own after losing both starting cornerbacks - Brandon Browner and Darrelle Revis - in free agency. The aforementioned Butler and former Eagle Kyle Arrington are slotted as the starters for now. Belichick is a defensive genius and the battle of wits against Kelly will be fascinating in itself.
The Eagles have had a taste of the Patriots in each of the past two years, but now get to test themselves against the defending Super Bowl champions ... in a game that counts.