Dolphins' playoff hopes alive despite inconsistency, Tannehill injury

Xavien Howard is among the league leaders in interceptions. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

The Miami Dolphins finished the first half of the season with a 5-4 record. Here’s a look at how they have fared and what’s ahead:

First-half rewind: The Dolphins were hopeful that a healthy year of Ryan Tannehill with coach Adam Gase would yield results similar to 2016, when they went 10-6 and made the playoffs. It started well, with a 3-0 record behind a ballhawk defense and an efficient Tannehill. A blowout loss at New England, followed by a collapse in Cincinnati, took the wind out of their sails, and then Tannehill was injured in Week 5. Brock Osweiler stepped in, giving a hint of hope after an upset win over Chicago, but he has fallen back to earth in recent weeks. Both sides of the ball have been inconsistent, but the Dolphins' league-leading 15 interceptions are keeping them in the playoff mix. Grade: Average

What has to happen for the Dolphins to make the playoffs? First, they need to get Tannehill back after the bye. Second, they need to plug their suspect run defense, which gave up an average of 200 rushing yards in a three-game stretch before getting back on track against the Jets. They need to continue to find ways to be creative and feed their explosive playmakers, such as Kenyan Drake and Jakeem Grant. And finally, they need to stay healthy. As far as their upcoming schedule, they have to take advantage of their two December games against the Bills and steal a game or two on the road.

MVP: Xavien Howard has been the Dolphins' best player, locking down one side of the field for much of the season. He has three interceptions and is emerging as the Dolphins' closest thing to a star. Howard held his own -- winning the first-half battle, losing the second half -- against DeAndre Hopkins in his marquee matchup of the season. He's a building block for Miami's defense, and his playmaking ability will be on notice for every quarterback he faces in the second half of the season.

Biggest surprise: Drake's smaller-than-expected role in the offense. Frank Gore has been the lead rusher, and Drake's role has been as a receiver. In Sunday's win over the Jets, Gore had 20 carries to Drake's three. The expectation coming into the year was that Drake would get the chance to be the featured back and Gore would supplement him on short yardage and goal-line situations. But Gase loves Gore's ability to keep the offense on track, so Drake, arguably Miami's best playmaker, has yet to get anything close to a full-time role.

Hurdle to overcome: Miami has placed 11 players on injured reserve, nine on the season-ending IR, since the start of the regular season. Most of those players were set to play a huge role in Miami's season, such as receiver Albert Wilson, guard Josh Sitton and defensive end William Hayes. Gase has said repeatedly that his team can't afford any more season-ending injuries. Laremy Tunsil and Ja'Wuan James are banged up headed into Week 10, but they'll need to find a way to overcome those injuries because that can't be an excuse.