Terrible way to end fun season

This was bad. This was unexpected. This was saving the worst for last, the Dolphins never really in it, losing to the Buffalo Bills in a manner few could have envisioned. This was realistically over early. And now, so is the season, the Dolphins becoming the odd team out in what was left of the playoff contenders.

The only good news to come out of this Sunday came in Tennessee’s victory over Houston, assuring the Dolphins the No. 3 pick in April’s draft. But that felt somewhat hollow in the wake of Sunday’s 56-26 loss.

I know it’s easy to pinpoint the blame on Tua Tagovailoa because he’s the quarterback and he’s the one so much was expected of. But this was a complete collapse. The defense, except for a couple of turnovers, played awful. The special teams gave up a long punt return. The offense put on a lowlight reel of dropped passes – 11 at first count — and missed chances.

No doubt Tua was part of the disappointment, failing to make a difference, forcing ill-advised throws and missing some open receivers. His receivers didn’t help much with all those drops. Neither did his running backs. I have said all season that this is a team in dire need of elite playmakers on offense and this void was evident throughout this forgettable Sunday in upstate New York.

I’ve seen many seasons end in Buffalo in a similar fashion. This one was as hard to take as any. I mean to play this way in a game this important is difficult to digest on so many fronts. The season had been so much fun – until Sunday.

No, it doesn’t wipe away all of the good, nor does it change the fact that this 10-win season was a success, but it is a punch in the gut for all those who believed this team simply couldn’t play this badly.

On another day we’ll think about what the No. 3 overall pick means. On another day, we’ll talk about how the needs are far fewer than they have been in a long time. But that’s for another day. For today, for right now, the disappointment can’t be hidden beneath a promising future.

The Dolphins had a chance to make this season special – playoff special — and instead they must accept this brutal ending and live with it. It’s a shame because this wasn’t the team we saw through 15 games, but this is the game we’ll take with us into the offseason.

Playoffs would be perfect capper to turnaround season

First, we’ll state what I believe is the obvious. This season is already a success for the Miami Dolphins. Grasp it. Savor it. Don’t deny it. The Dolphins are 10-5 heading into Sunday’s season-finale at Buffalo. Their rebuild is on fast forward, already surpassing the expectations of so many, and it is clear that many of the pieces are beginning to look like long-term solutions.

All of that will remain true whether or not the Dolphins beat the Bills on Sunday in upstate New York or whether or not they make the playoffs. Nothing, you see, can take away from the seeds that have been planted this season. Nothing can remove the feel-good story this team has produced over the past four months.

But a spot in the playoffs would be a nice way to cap this season off, wouldn’t it? So why stop now? Why not see if last Saturday’s heart-pounding comeback over the Raiders was a clear sign that something special is in the works. Something magical. Unfortunately, due to Covid-19, something magical won’t include Fitz-Magic against the Bills. This will be Tua’s show. No fourth quarter hook in this one.

The computers say the Dolphins have all sorts of ways to get into the postseason tournament. But the best route is to do it themselves and that means beating a Bills team that figures to rest some of its regulars with, at worst, a No. 3 seed in the AFC all locked up.

I’m truthfully not sure the Dolphins have enough offensive talent to win this game if the Bills were at full strength. But in this scenario, with the Dolphins having everything to play for and with the Bills just trying to stay healthy, the likelihood increases that the Dolphins will finish the season with 11 regular season wins for the first time since 2008.

Imagine that, 11 wins. Only two seasons ago we were sitting here talking about a massive rebuild, about having to endure some difficult seasons. Now that seems like lightyears ago.

Granted, this is not a finished product. The defense is clearly the strength of this team. The special teams are also top drawer. It’s the offense that is in need of the most help and that help won’t come until this coming offseason.

In the meantime, the success of this offense will largely depend on the play of Tua Tagovailoa who must now go wire-to-wire, clearly a chance to further solidify himself as the future of this franchise. Can he take his down field passing game to another level? Can he avoid a game-altering turnover? So much resting on this rookie’s shoulders.

The task is clear. Take a very good season and make it even better. Do it yourselves instead of asking for the help of others. I say they can. I say they will.

Dolphins 20, Bills 17. There’s no reason for the fun to stop now.

An amazing head-turning victory – literally head-turning

The Miami Dolphins have had their share of remarkable finishes over the years. But nothing quite like this. Nothing that can compare to the events that unfolded late Saturday night in Las Vegas, the Dolphins somehow, someway leaving town with a 26-25 victory.

And nothing, not even remotely, can compare to the play that realistically won this game and kept the Dolphins’ playoff hopes alive and certainly thriving heading into the season-finale at Buffalo.

It was literally a head-turner for the ages, a play you can watch over and over for days and days and still have no idea how Ryan Fitzpatrick managed to get off that 34-yard pass to Mack Hollins with 19 seconds left only after Raiders defender Arden Key had twisted Fitzpatrick’s helmet so far around his head it was impossible to see.

So how did he complete that pass? How did he have the presence, obviously in serious discomfort, to blindly fling the ball deep down the sideline, hitting Hollins at the perfect spot, as he stepped out of bounds?

I’m truthfully not sure. Maybe there’s something to this FitzMagic thing after all. Maybe it was just one of those indescribable moments when everything aligns at the perfect time. Or maybe we should stop trying to figure out how it happened and simply enjoy the fact that this team is 10-5 with one game left thanks to that pass by Fitzpatrick and a game-winning 44-yard field goal by Jason Sanders that followed.

See, the Dolphins lost this game. And then won it. And then lost it again. And then won it again. And then watched helplessly as the Raiders milked down the clock to kick what they thought was a game-winning chip shot field goal with those 19 seconds left. The Raiders could have scored a touchdown on that drive. Appeared to take a knee at the 1-yard line to avoid doing just that. Figured it was better to leave the Dolphins with only a few seconds on the clock than to score that touchdown with about a minute left.

How terribly wrong they were. Those 19 seconds turned out to be solid gold for the Dolphins and fool’s gold for the Raiders. It also validated the decision by Brian Flores to replace Tua Tagovailoa with Fitzpatrick with just under 10 minutes left and the offense floundering badly.

Fitzpatrick did everything Tua couldn’t. He was magnificent. But did he do enough to justify starting in Buffalo next Sunday? Flores made it clear after the game that he will stay with Tua just as he did after his first benching earlier this season in Denver and have Fitzpatrick ready in relief. Kind of like what the Dolphins did in the 1980’s with WoodStrock.

Then again what we saw from Fitzpatrick against the Raiders clearly showed us what a difference he can make while Tua learns the nuances of pro football life. But it’s also important to remember this: The Raiders are not a top-echelon team and the Dolphins remain far too limited on offense to expect a run deep into the playoffs.

As much as we want to believe in this team – and it has given us so many reasons to do just that – the big picture says they are still a year and another draft away from being a serious Super Bowl contender.

That, in part, is what has made this season so special. The Dolphins are doing it with an incomplete team.  They are doing it with superior coaching, with some excellent defense, with some trickery on special teams and with the remarkably accurate right leg of Sanders.

And now you can add “a little bit of FitzMagic” to that list.

How else can you explain what happened against the Raiders, how Fitzpatrick got that pass off with his helmet so badly twisted, how there was no possible way the Dolphins could pull this out.

And then they did.

And their season lives on.

Enjoy the moment because there is so much to enjoy.

Dolphins making this a merry Christmas

Let’s imagine for a minute a dozen things that would be neat to find under the Christmas tree if you’re a Miami Dolphins’ fan.

• We’ll start with my favorite: Wrapped in a golden box near the front of the tree you’ll find the first and second round picks of the Houston Texans. Sorry, though, no touching this merchandise. This already belongs to the Dolphins.

• A certificate co-signed by owner Stephen Ross and Head Coach Brian Flores that assures Flores will remain the head coach of the Dolphins for at least the next decade. That beats a new quilt for comfort any day.

• A roadmap to the future of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. In case you haven’t noticed that road is heading straight up.

• A complete guide explaining the nuances of every blitz package in the Dolphins amoeba defense. Please be advised that you may not be able to grasp it all. Just ask San Diego quarterback Justin Herbert about that.

• A signed copy of the Xavien Howard bestseller: “You throw it, I’ll catch it.” OK, there’s no such book, but the title sure works for me.

• A video of Jakeem Grant’s fastest 40 time. Won’t keep your attention for very long.

• A magic ladder once belonging to tight end Mike Gesicki. Make it all the way to the top and there’s no pass you can’t catch, something we’ve already seen several times this season.

• A Ryan Fitzpatrick beard trimming set. Hardly ever been used.

• A slow-motion video of Jerome Baker sacking Patrick Mahomes for a 30-yard loss a few weeks ago. Can’t watch that play enough.

• A one-on-one dinner with Jason Sanders. Of course, just for kicks.

• A framed picture of Patriots coach Bill Belichick sitting at home watching the NFL playoffs begin. This is a keeper, a rare photo that hasn’t been seen since 2008 when the Patriots last missed the playoffs. Rewarding to know the Dolphins had something to do with it.

• And finally, you’ll find a little envelope that says on the front: Don’t open until late in the night of Dec. 26th. Inside you’ll find a card that simply says: Dolphins 27, Raiders 17.

Merry Christmas, Dol-fans. May what’s under your tree bring nothing but happiness and smiles to you and your entire family.

This Dolphins’ team just keeps finding a way

Add “resourceful” to the list of so many attributes that have helped propel the Dolphins to a 9-5 record with two games left. Look at  Sunday against the Patriots. The top four offensive threats were missing – DeVante Parker, Mike Gesicki, Jakeem Grant and Myles Gaskin.

So what happens? The Dolphins rush for 250 yards and, without his top receivers, Tua Tagovailoa used his feet instead, running for two second half touchdowns that sealed the outcome.

That’s resourceful. That’s a high-quality team. Forget about who’s missing. Get by with what you have. Find a way. Any way. That’s how you make a serious run toward the playoffs and that’s how you make sure the Patriots are not invited to the party.

That’s right, one of the most gratifying parts of Sunday’s grind-it-out 22-12 victory was that it eliminated the Patriots from every playoff equation. That’s what the Patriots used to do to the Dolphins. But now the roles are reversed. Now it’s the Dolphins providing the hammer on the Patriots season and, for a while, you had to wonder whether this day would ever come. Wonder no more. The Dolphins are undeniably the better team.

There was so much to take from Sunday’s victory:

The defense made it 20 straight games forcing a turnover, the longest streak in the league, while holding the Patriots to just four field goals. It’s been obvious all season that defense is the strength of this team.

On offense, give Tua credit for not forcing things downfield with his best receivers sidelined. He was patient. He showed poise. He settled for short throws underneath. His only mistake was an interception that came while he was hit throwing the ball. His two rushing touchdowns were clear reminders of his athletic ability.

And, as we have been reminded so often over the years, there haven’t been many rookie quarterbacks talented enough to win against a Bill Belichick defense. Tua was a rare exception.

The big picture? The Dolphins need to win in Las Vegas next Saturday night and then in Buffalo to guarantee themselves a spot in the playoffs. Win one out of two and they’ll need some help. Yes, even with a 10-6 record. But forget about the playoffs just for a moment. This offense is too limited to really expect a deep run. The real promise is a team on the ascent, a defense that has been rebuilt, a coaching staff that makes the right adjustments and two first and second round picks in next year’s draft. All of this and a 9-5 record after 14 games tells you everything you need to know about the direction this franchise is heading.

It’s statement time for Dolphins against Patriots

What better way to underline the dawning of a new day in the AFC East than by eliminating the New England Patriots from playoff contention? I mean how many times over the years have the Patriots done that to the Dolphins? It’s time for a role reversal, don’t you think?

With three games left, the Dolphins are at 8-5 and their immediate playoff future is totally in their hands. Win out and they are in. Win two out of three and the odds are greatly reduced. But it’s got to start Sunday against the Patriots. This is as close to a must win as the Dolphins have had this season.

The Patriots are 6-7 and hanging perilously to their playoff lives. It’s possible they will be eliminated even with a victory over the Dolphins given all the teams in the AFC with eight or more wins. But what the Dolphins can do on Sunday is eliminate any semblance of hope the Patriots might have had.

And wouldn’t that be sweet?

I see the Dolphins winning this game the same way they have won so many other games this season. With a strong defensive effort, probably punctuated by a few forced turnovers. With some difference-making plays on special teams. And with Tua being Tua, which means enough positive plays and third down conversions, even with an injury-depleted receiving corps, to seize the day. I know the Patriots have had unreal success against rookie quarterbacks since Bill Belichick arrived, and that’s a concern. But Tua is embracing this opportunity and you get the feeling he’ll figure it out.

Having said that, the Patriots defense is solid, by far the strength of their team. That should keep the game close, the Dolphins needing to find enough firepower on offense to replace, among others, tight end Mike Gesicki, who caught two touchdown passes against the Chiefs before leaving with a shoulder injury.

It’s strange to see the Patriots sitting there at 6-7, struggling so badly on offense, trying to make it work with a running quarterback in Cam Newton who has been consistently inconsistent this season. But the Dolphins lost to the Patriots in the season-opener so they are well aware of what needs to be done.

Know this, though: This is a far better, far more confident Dolphins’ team than the one that visited New England on the second Sunday of September, losing by 10 points, which so far has been their most lopsided loss of the season.

There is no need mincing words. The Dolphins need to win this game. With the final two games on the road, at the Raiders and Bills, the playoff prospects will be reduced significantly with a loss.

But I don’t see that happening. This is no longer yesterday’s Patriots and the standings in the AFC East clearly bear that out.

The Dolphins will win this game, I’m saying 23-14, and will secure the first, of what I believe will be many, winning seasons under Brian Flores.

A gutsy effort underlined need for playmakers

How do you feel right now? The Dolphins come within six points of the defending Super Bowl champions. They forced four turnovers, sack Patrick Mahomes three times and get the type of performance out of Tua Tagovailoa that once again screams the future is oh so bright.

That’s all very promising. But there’s a flipside here, a reason to temper that good feeling of standing so tall against such a quality opponent. Because what we also saw in Sunday’s 33-27 loss the Chiefs was the best indication yet of why this team still lacks deep-into-the-playoffs credentials.

They just don’t have enough playmakers on offense.

Granted, the Dolphins had to play most of Sunday without receivers DeVante Parker and Jakeem Grant and some of Sunday without tight end Mike Gesicki, all down with injuries. But even when they were in, as the Chiefs were building a 30-10 lead, it became increasingly apparent of the limitations of this Dolphins offense.

For the most part, Tua has been what we had hoped. But Tua needs help. He needs an elite running back behind him. He needs a top-notch receiver on the outside. He needs help at slot receiver. That the Dolphins are 8-5 given what they don’t have on offense is a credit to every other part of this team, certainly the defense. With more offensive options, they would have converted some of those third downs during the Chiefs scoring run.

Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait to next offseason to acquire the talent this offense needs. Rest assured, that these needs are no great revelations. The entire organization, beginning with General Manager Chris Grier, is well aware of these priorities.

See the plan all along was to get a quarterback, build the offensive line and the entire defense first. The final step would be the playmakers on offense. This team proved against the Chiefs it is certainly ready to seize that final step.

They led 10-0 after Byron Jones got the first interception of his career. They had a 30-yard loss on sack by Jerome Baker, who outran Mahomes, which is quite an accomplishment. They got a nice touchdown pass from Tua to Gesicki.

But then the Chiefs took over, scoring 30 straight points, the Dolphins searching for first downs on offense. As impressive as it was seeing the Dolphins make a late Tua-led comeback, you just can’t fall behind by that much against a quality team like the Chiefs. That’s where the playmakers would have helped.

Put it this way: The Dolphins need more players on offense like Xavien Howard on defense.

The big picture? The Dolphins are still in good shape for the playoffs. Next Sunday’s home game against the Patriots becomes paramount with two road games following. A 10-6 record, logic says, gets them in the playoffs. That means winning two of the last three. Based on what I saw Sunday, they are certainly capable of that.

Anything more, I believe, will have to wait until some more offensive playmakers are added to this already talented roster.

How do the Dolphins pull off the upset on Sunday?

I’ve tried to create a scenario where the Dolphins win Sunday’s game against the 11-1 Kansas City Chiefs. I’ve looked at the matchups and the tendencies and all the statistics and have come to the following conclusions:

Things have to fall perfectly for the Dolphins to win this game.

The Chiefs can’t be sharp, and the Dolphins must be sharp. The defense must hold Patrick Mahomes and his Air Force to about three touchdowns and a field goal and hope that the Dolphins offense can play its best game of the season.

And hope that’s enough.

I wish I could tell you I’m oversaturated with confidence that the Dolphins can pull this off. But while I have a decent amount of belief that the defense can play well enough to keep things interesting, I have yet to see enough from this offense to justify similar optimism. And it’s hard to believe it will magically appear Sunday after the offensive struggles of the first dozen games.

See, the Chiefs defense can be exploited. The question remains: Are the Dolphins capable of making that happen? They absolutely can’t get by just with strong defense and the right leg of Jason Sanders, a formula that has carried them through much of this season. The Dolphins have to run the ball well and have to find some chunk plays in the passing game, which has truthfully yet to materialize.

Don’t start making this game about Tua vs. Mahomes. That’s not fair to either player. Mahomes has already arrived. He is at the top of his class. Tua is just dipping his toes in the water, trying to gradually get where Mahomes has already been. Yes, Tua has to play well. No doubt what he did last week against the Bengals is an encouraging sign. But these are not the Bengals and this is a team that can make you look bad in a hurry.

I like where the Dolphins are right now, even with their toughest stretch of the season now directly in front of them, the toughest stretch, in fact, of any team in the league.

I still believe they will win two of the last four games and make the playoffs with a 10-6 record. But as much as I want to pick them on Sunday, I simply can’t come up with a logical scenario to justify that prediction because the Dolphins simply don’t have enough firepower on offense to stay with the Chiefs.

My prediction: Kansas City 28, Dolphins 17.

This defense is becoming special; now it’s up to Tua

We’ll talk about Tua in a minute. But the story on Sunday in the 19-7 victory over the Bengals was undoubtedly the Dolphins defense. Just as it has been for most of this surprising 8-4 start.

The defense dominated, playing as well as it has all season, holding the Bengals to minus yards in the second half until the final minutes. All told, there were two interceptions – yes, one of them by Xavien Howard, his eighth of the season – and six sacks.

Throw in four field goals by Jason “Automatic” Sanders and a nice touchdown drive to open the second half and that’s how the Dolphins have been winning games through two-thirds of the season.

The defense dominating. The special teams with a decisive edge. And just enough offense to get by. That’s what this team is about. That’s their identity as the schedule gets a whole lot tougher from here on out.

It begins next Sunday against Kansas City and we’re about to find out how good this Dolphins defense really is. You do it against teams like the Jets and Bengals and it’s nice. You do it against the best offense in the league in the Chiefs and you’re talking about validating everything that has gone on this season.

While this defense is improved, I’m not quite sure it is Chiefs ready. But I can tell you this. They’ll play well enough to keep things interesting. Whether they can hold on without ample help from the offense is a legitimate and major concern.

And this where we get to Tua. He struggled in the first half on Sunday. Couldn’t put much together. But then he began the second half with a beautiful touchdown drive that screamed of the possibilities of having this rookie behind center. His touch was right on. His movement was excellent. There was balance on offense. And the drive was culminated with one of those nice touches, a touchdown pass to tight end Mike Gesicki.

You’ve got to understand something about this offense. It is what it is. There are very few playmakers. Miles Gaskin is a nice running back, but in no manner does he approach elite. For this offense to get by, Tua has to be the conductor, spreading the ball around, using his superior athletic skills, doing all the types of things he did in that drive to open the second half.

Fortunately for the Dolphins, that’s all they really needed against the Bengals. With Sanders kicking and this defense dominating, the outcome seemed far more secure than the final score might indicate.

Unfortunately, the game was interrupted and marred by a couple of incidents that resulted in the ejection of, most notably, wide receiver DeVante Parker and cornerback Xavien Howard. No doubt the Bengals appeared to be the instigator. But it is imperative that this team maintains its composure. They aren’t good enough to lose players like Parker and Howard. They were fortunate it didn’t make a difference this time.

At one point, Coach Brian Flores charged the field, having to be restrained, when things were getting heated. He was praised for it by his players after the game and rightfully so. But you really shouldn’t be surprised. This is what Flores about. His team is his family. He has instilled that belief in his players. One of the many reasons he gives this team real long-term stability. But we’ll worry about the future later. This team is 8-4 for the first time since 2003. This team has a real shot at making the playoffs. This team is growing up before our eyes. Now, it’s about the Chiefs and by far the stiffest test of the season.

Offense holds key to earning playoff spot

This was supposed to be the Burrow vs. Tua game, matching the two top quarterbacks taken in the 2020 NFL draft. But now Joe Burrow is out for the season with a knee injury and Tua Tagovailoa has been fighting through a thumb injury and hopes to play.

None of that, though, changes the bottom line: The Dolphins are the better team. Yes, even if Burrow was still playing. So, I fully expect a victory along the lines of what the Dolphins did to the Jets. In other words, the defense and special teams should own the day and, as for the offense, that still remains a work in progress.

It’s hard to imagine a scenario where the Dolphins don’t walk away from Sunday with an 8-4 record heading into a very difficult final four games: home against Kansas City and New England, on the road at the Raiders and Bills. Those four games will undoubtedly define this season. My gut feeling is that the Dolphins will split those four games and finish 10-4, which should be plenty good enough to earn them a spot in an expanded playoff field.

But gut feelings don’t always ring true and it is clear that the major priority on Sunday, as it will be over the final month of games, is generating some consistency on offense. No doubt the defense is the strength and the special teams are special. But you can’t match up against the elite scoring teams with what we’ve seen from this Dolphins’ offense over the first 11 games.

While a lack of dynamic playmakers on offense can’t be addressed until the next offseason, the Dolphins can certainly get more than they’ve gotten out of the group currently in place.

The offensive line has been hot and cold. The running game just hasn’t shown much of anything and the big plays in the passing game have yet to materialize with any regularity. These are major concerns and significant roadblocks.

What this offense needs to do now is find some kind of identity and build off of it. They need to score off of turnovers and start converting more third downs. Whether it’s a healthy Tua or Ryan Fitzpatrick playing quarterback, they need to produce some game-altering plays.

From my vantage point, the strength of the offense at this precise moment is the receiving of DeVante Parker and a group of multi-talented tight ends. Sure, we’ve seen some nice things from running back Myles Gaskin, but he’s been hurt for the past month. I’d like to tell you there is a clear No. 2 receiver behind Parker, but there just isn’t. All sorts of combinations have been experimented with since Preston Williams went down with an injury, but nothing of substance has emerged.

I’m truthfully not sure the Dolphins can overcome that against some of the better teams and especially when the stakes are raised if they make the playoffs. I just don’t see how this team under its current make-up can win a high scoring game unless things can dramatically change.

Which brings us back to Sunday’s game against the Bengals. This would be the ideal time to get more out of this offense and to at least put together the type of balanced attack they can build on. I mean the Chiefs are coming to town a week from Sunday and, as good as Jason Sanders has been, his uncanny accuracy isn’t going to be enough to match what the Chiefs can do to a scoreboard.

But that’s for next week. Right now, it’s about beating the Bengals and making it seven wins in their last eight games. My pick: Dolphins 26, Bengals 10.