The tremendous performance in the Thanksgiving Day victory at Dallas has fueled a lot of optimism that this season will end differently for the Dolphins. But all those good vibes also have to be tempered with the reality that the Dolphins have put themselves in a tough spot with their midseason slump.

The problem is that there just are too many teams with really good records in the AFC this season.

The Dolphins' 8-4 mark would be tied for third in the NFC right now, behind the 9-3 marks of Philadelphia and St. Louis.

But in the AFC, the Dolphins are no better than fifth right now behind Kansas City (11-1), New England (10-2), Indianapolis (9-3) and Tennessee (9-3).

The sad truth is the Dolphins could run the table, starting Sunday at New England, and not even win the AFC East because they also would need for the Patriots to lose one of their other three games -- against Jacksonville and Buffalo at home and on the road against the Jets.

OK, let's assume the Dolphins beat New England, run the table and the Patriots cooperate and lose at least one other game. That gives the Dolphins the AFC East title.

But it probably wouldn't even be enough for a first-round bye. Kansas City figures to be a lock right now to get at least the No. 2 seed because it's difficult to envision the Chiefs losing three of their last four.

That leaves the AFC South champion to beat out, and this is where the Dolphins' earlier losses to the Colts and Titans could come back to haunt them.

In two-way-tie scenarios, the Dolphins lose out against both Tennessee and Indy because of the head-to-head competition.

That means that both Indy and Tennessee have to lose twice for the Dolphins to overtake them. Ouch!

That means the Dolphins probably will have to do things the hard way if this season is to end with a trip to the Super Bowl.

Of course, we're only talking about such scenarios because of the way the Dolphins played at Dallas.

Look at the flip side, if the Dolphins lose Sunday at New England, the Patriots clinch the AFC East and the best the Dolphins can do is make the playoffs as a wild card.

And even if they do beat the Pats, the Dolphins still have to deal with a tough Monday night home game against the Eagles, a tough road trip at Buffalo and the finale at home against the dreaded Jets.

The bottom line is the Dolphins maybe started getting hot against Dallas or maybe it was an aberration.

Either way, it's a tough road that awaits them.

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