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Miami Dolphins at a crossroads heading into crucial showdown

MIAMI -- It started with the bus ride from Ford Field to the airport, and it continued on a dark and quiet flight back to South Florida. This mood, this tone, was different from what had been seen in past seasons, an observation made by multiple members of the Dolphins' organization.

Few people spoke. Nobody laughed. And bitterness hung in the air like a thick fog in the wake of Miami's 20-16 loss to the Lions in Detroit -- a one-possession game down to the final minutes -- as players absorbed a failed opportunity to put themselves squarely in the playoff mix.

It might seem trite, but NFL people will say they can often tell a lot from a postgame mood, especially after a loss. Too much chatter is a sign of disenchantment. Too much anger is a sign of a divisive locker room. You want it somewhere in between -- a sour taste over what should have been -- and the Dolphins were exactly there:

Right down the middle.

And as they prepare for a critical game against the Buffalo Bills on "Thursday Night Football," that's precisely where the Dolphins remain: Teetering in purgatory, a team standing in the middle of a balance, wondering whether it'll fall with the weight or rise to the sky.

Who, exactly, are these Dolphins?

Maybe they're the team that pummeled the Chargers, 37-0, in Week 9. Or maybe they're the team that caved to the Packers and the Lions, squandering contests that were within reach until the closing minutes. Either way, make no mistake: This is an organization in the midst of an identity crisis, like an awkward teenager going through a voice change.

All of that is why the upcoming matchup -- with a Bills team that exposed Miami's offensive line in a Week 2 loss -- might be the most important for the Dolphins in years. The winner will remain within striking distance of both the New England Patriots in the AFC East and a wild-card berth. The loser, especially if it's Miami, faces a wildly unknown future.

To understand the crossroads Miami is at, take the offense as the perfect example.

As much as the Dolphins have shown offensive potential lately (Ryan Tannehill's passer rating is right at 100 over the past six games), and as much as first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor also seems to be progressing, there is nonetheless a growing rift between several players and Lazor, according to sources.

During involved conversations with four players (and text exchanges with multiple others), all parties made it clear that Lazor's relationship with the players is currently rocky. His abrasive tenor with several starters has worn thin on some, and an inconsistent identity on offense is internally magnifying the issue.

It is a delicate situation -- and Lazor doesn't necessarily deserve blame, especially since he should have the benefit of patience as he learns his new role. After all, the debate can go either way.

Is it a problem that Mike Wallace is now being utilized less as a deep threat and more as an intermediate receiver if that's currently the most efficient way to get him involved? Is it a problem that Lazor and head coach Joe Philbin don't give Tannehill any freedom to audible at the line of scrimmage if Tannehill seems to be playing the best football of his career?

There are no exact answers to such questions, but there will no doubt be opinions from those within the locker room if the plan doesn't yield appropriate results. That is the risk when a staff limits the value of player feedback. But the Dolphins' coaches also seemingly recognize the potential reward if they can make it work. Win games, and you'll win the players' trust.

In other words, the inconsistency of this team isn't simply affecting the stress level of the fan base; it is also impacting the dynamics within the Dolphins' organization. And with the futures of so many (from pending free agents on offense and defense to players with big salaries to coaches and management) remaining in flux, that can be a very fragile state to be in.

That is what makes this season -- and this week -- so very intriguing. That is what makes these Dolphins especially interesting. They have the potential to be a really solid team. But they could also possibly be headed toward another rebuilding stage.

Consider this statistic about Miami's offense: No team in the NFL reaches the red zone more often than the Dolphins. They've marched inside the opponent's 20-yard line on 43 occasions -- an impressive level of consistency. And yet, they rank 30th when it comes to scoring red-zone touchdowns.

Do you credit the Dolphins for getting within striking distance so often? Or criticize them for not fully capitalizing on those chances? Just as with every other factor regarding this Dolphins team -- from where to place the credit and the blame -- the answer is probably somewhere in between.

It doesn't help that Miami must face a tenacious Bills defensive front on a short week, just after losing Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert for the season. It is perhaps an unfair situation, given how many conclusions will be drawn about this Dolphins team from Thursday's outcome. But the Dolphins are 5-4. The moods within the locker room hang in the balance -- and so, too, does the record.

All that being said, this truly can be a special squad.

The defense is finally starting to get the national recognition it deserves, as defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle continues to put together game plans that have rattled many of the best quarterbacks in the game. Tannehill's growth has been staggering this year, and he is trending toward franchise-quarterback-type levels.

And regardless of the current relationship between Lazor and some players, he has found ways to get more out of Tannehill, by utilizing his athleticism and mobility more often. Lazor is doing a noble job of adjusting on the fly in his debut year, even if the team's identity is a work in progress.

So which way will this season turn? What will the mood be like in the wake of Thursday's game? At this point, it's anybody's guess. But even if a win or a loss does not make or break the season, there are so many other elements on the line.

This is a season on the brink. And the Dolphins are in the most intriguing of places:

Right down the middle. Facing a fork in the road.

Follow Jeff Darlington on Twitter @JeffDarlington.

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