Last Week’s Result
I missed on my first win/loss pick of the year, and I was thrilled to be wrong. Given the Bills’ offensive firepower, I predicted a loss in a bit of a shootout, 34-27. What we got was our Fins toughing out an ugly 21-19 win over the team that had treated us like a rented mule for the last three-plus seasons. Happy to take the L here.
What It Means for the Dolphins Current State of Affairs
So I guess the Bills monkey is off our back, finally. Sure, it took that monkey having an arm fall off and being beaten into submission partially by a white-hot sun and greenhouse-level humidity, but I think we’ll all gladly take it. With that win, our Miami Dolphins are one of only two 3-0 teams left in the entire NFL, along with the Eagles. It’s a place that all but the most delusionally optimistic Fins fans thought nearly impossible, but here we are.
However, is anyone else sharing my feeling that this falls under the cliché "not all 3-0 records are built the same?" Maybe it’s just the trauma of three-plus decades of being a Dolphins fan, but I’m not exactly rolling down the highways waving around a banner blazoned with "Dolphins Superbowl LVII Champs" just yet. By way of explanation, a quick look at how we got here:
We beat the Pats in week 1 at home. This was a solid if unspectacular win over a bitter division rival which was the toast of the AFC from 2001 to 2018. It was a win brought home by a defense that clamped down on a fairly lame offense, and a Fins offense that did just enough to seal it.
In week 2, we saw our Fins pull off one of the most miraculous second-half comebacks in NFL history. The defense got gashed badly for the first half and some of the third, before locking in, and the offense woke all the way up at the same time, most markedly in the fourth quarter. Fantastic win, but hardly a recipe for sustained success.
This past Sunday was the weirdest of the bunch. Like week 2, it was a win that will be nearly impossible to duplicate, given all the unusual factors that came into play. The biggest was just how mangled the Bills defense was coming into this game. They were missing five starters right from the jump, with more dropping every minute once the second half heat and humidity set in. The jet-fueled Bills offense, though, was almost completely healthy at the start, missing only their starting center. Alas, they too started tumbling to the turf like a bunch of frat dudes who had just quaffed one Jaeger bomb too many. The injuries and the heat exhaustion clearly took its toll on a Bills squad that was struggling more with every passing moment.
On the flip side, it’s not as if our Dolphins were operating on full strength. Our defense was still without key cornerback Byron Jones, and All Pro Xavien Howard was playing through a hamstring injury. An under-reported loss was to interior defensive lineman Raekwon Davis, a ferocious run-stuffer and overall backfield menace. I feel that these missing pieces were a big part in why the Bills offense was still able to rack up a ton of yards (497 total yards, to be precise). And yet, our defense once again went "bend, don’t break" mode as hard as they ever have, tightening up when it really counted and allowing only 19 points. On top of that, the defense had several near interceptions, so they were gutting it out and doing their part, even if they had the worst time trying to just get off the field. The offense had its own struggles, with offensive linemen getting dinged up, Tua getting his back concussed (wink, wink), and a general inability to find a flow. Well, they put it together just enough times to rack up three TDs and come away with a win. Josh Allen put up a Superman performance, but our defense low-dose kryptonited him enough that he couldn't seal the deal at the end.
Gutsy as it was, it's not the kind of win that a team can duplicate and stack into the backbone of a strong winning season. If we’re being realistic about this team, we must admit that there are still many areas that need improvement if they are to make it to the playoffs and be a real threat come January.
With that, we look ahead to the week 4 opponent, the defending AFC champion Cincinnati Bengals.
The Bengals Thus Far
Record: 1-2, 4th place in the AFC North
The defending AFC champs have gotten off to a shaky start. They lost two close ones to Pittsburgh and Dallas before posting their first win against the Jets in the Meadowlands. I remember listening to multiple level-headed, well-reasoned arguments before the season as to why the Bengals wouldn’t be favored as a top AFC team this season, despite their phenomenal run to the Superbowl back in January and February. So far, it looks like some of those prognostications are coming true. It’s early yet, though, so it helps to look at their two most recent games.
Bengals versus Dallas and New York Jets
While I couldn’t watch the complete game against Dallas, the summaries, stats, and watching the extended video summary can tell a fair bit of the tale. In Dallas, against a Cowboys team without Dak Prescott, the Bengals dug themselves and hole that field goal kicker Evan "Legatron" McPherson kept from getting too deep. The score was 17-3 at the half, but the Bengals defense stifled Dallas’ offense enough to have two more field goals cut it to 17-9. A late touchdown drive and successful two-point conversion tied the score with 3:45 left, but the Cowboys mustered enough yards on the final drive to set up the game-winning, 50-yard field goal off the foot of Brett Maher. The offensive totals in this game were drab, with the Bengals amassing a mere 254 total yards, compared to the Cowboys’ 337. Hampering the Bengals offense was the fact that Smokin’ Joe Burrow was sacked six times, losing 34 yards. This has been a theme in Burrow’s young career, and this game was no different.
The summary highlights from this game reflected what the numbers showed. The Bengals defense looked quite good in this game, and Cowboys QB Cooper Rush had to make some top-notch throws to keep the ball moving. Cincy’s offensive line had real problems with a tough Dallas pass rush, and it was easy to see why Joe Burrow was sacked six times.
This past Sunday against the Jets, the Bengals got right against the Jets, as many struggling teams do.
I watched the Sunday Ticket replay of this game, and there were curious things to note. The Jets were making a game of this thing, in their way, through nearly all of the first quarter. Nearly. They got some pressure on Burrow, forced a few mistakes, and kept the score at 7-6. That is, until Burrow completed a 56-yard touchdown bomb to Tyler Boyd to put Cincy up 14-6 as time expired on the first quarter. From that point, it was a slow bleed-out for the Jets. They still had a shot, technically, only down 20-9 heading into the fourth quarter. Alas, Burrow and his pack of Bengals took less than three minutes to march right down the field for another TD, going up 27-9 and more or less icing the whole thing. I could write plenty about the Jets, but I'll save that for next week. As far as the Bengals, they looked notably better than their loss in Dallas. The defense looked quite solid, for what that's worth against a Joe Flacco-led Jets offense. They
pressured Flacco plenty, though the Jets spotty O line had an equal hand in that. The Bengals offense certainly showed their big-strike capability, with Tyler Boyd and Tee Higgins going off. The two combined for 198 yards and TD, each one making more than one eye-popping catch. Burrow really is fantastic, in terms of his arm talent and ability to keep plays alive. Still, he's an inveterate gambler, and the Jets had more than a few chances to make him pay for some ill-advised choices to hold onto the ball or force some throws into overly tight windows. The Jets missed those chances, though, and Cincinnati was ready to keep marching towards their decisive 18-point victory.
What does all this mean for the game on Thursday?
Before looking at the unit-versus-unit breakdown, I must admit that these Thursday Night games are extremely tough to presage. Trying to figure out how injuries and short rest will impact these games is a fool's errand, but I'll do my best, given what we know so far from the injury reports and what we saw from Sunday's games.
Dolphins Defense versus Bengals Offense
In a normal week, I would give our defense the nod here. The Bengals offense is no joke, for sure, but Burrow does like to take chances, which makes them prone to turning the ball over or at least losing plenty of field position due to sacks. Miami's defense is constructed to take full advantage of just that kind of risk-taking, and usually I would expect them to make life extremely difficult for Joe Burrow. But this isn't a normal week. This past Sunday, the Dolphins defense put up a herculean effort in staying on the field for over 40 game minutes in blistering heat and humidity. It took every ounce of strength and will that they had to keep a lid on the Bills' powerhouse offense, and it was clear by the end of the game that they were utterly exhausted, just like nearly everyone who played more than 30 snaps in that game. Having only three days to rest before hopping on a plane for a road game isn't going to help the recovery period. The final injury report from Wednesday is a cypher. Byron Jones is still out. Listed as "Questionable" are Xavien Howard, Brandon Jones, and Raekwon Davis. Those wouldn't be small losses, if they're not able to go. Having to chase around Joe Burrow and those young, speedy, talented receivers is a tough task on a normal night, let alone with three days' less rest. The Bengals don't seem especially good at running the ball or pass blocking, so that's probably the most obvious area to try and exploit.
Dolphins Offense versus Bengals Defense
This one is all about whether Tua is healthy or not. If you know anything about Teddy Bridgewater, then you shouldn't have been surprised by what you saw in his brief stint against Buffalo when Tua was out with his injury. His ugly 0/2 on passing attempts and taken sack are pretty much what you can expect if things get even remotely difficult. Let's just hope he isn't under center. Assuming Tua is back, I like our chances on this side of the ball. The upshot of having our defense on the field for roughly 6,725 minutes last Sunday is that the offense wasn't under such strain. They do have some injuries that they're struggling with, but their severity is anyone's guess. Assuming that other key offensive players like Armstead, Hill, Waddle, and Hunt are as good to go as possible, I think our offense has a solid advantage here. While the Bengals defense is no slouch, they haven't faced an offense like this yet - one that has the elite speed and dynamism to keep them running around for the full 60 minutes. This could actually be the game where the thus-far dormant running game starts waking up.
Special Teams, Coaching, and Other Odds and Ends
Cincinnati's field goal game is strong, no doubt, but so is Jason $anders. The Phins also have a punter who's been kicking at an All Pro level thus far. I didn't see any problems with the Bengals' kick or punt coverage in the two games I watched, so any special teams advantage Miami has is slight.
Coaching. Our freshly-minted head coach, Mike McDaniel, has had to run one hell of a gauntlet to start his head coaching career. Game 1: one of the all-time greatest, Bill Belichick. Game 2: one of the absolute best and most successful head coaches of the last 15 years, John Harbaugh. Game 3: one of the very best "new" head coaches of the last 7 or 8 years, Sean McDermott. McDaniel beat them all, and wasn't outcoached by a single one of them. Mike McD has thus far proven to be exceptionally astute at crafting solid game plans and not making many mistakes. While Zac Taylor has obviously done a nice job in Cincinnati, I saw some signs of the head-scratching decisions that have always hovered over his four years as the Bengals head coach. I saw this in their win over the Jets last Sunday, when with a 15-point lead and 12 minutes left in the game, Taylor had his offense out there throwing the ball all over the place on designed pass plays. I'm no expert, but that seemed like a fine time to start incorporating the run game a bit so that even if you don't get any first downs, you can at least kill a few more minutes of the clock in a game that was still a two-score affair. We're early in Mike McDaniel's career, but I don't think he'd make that questionable choice. All this said, for the first time this season I give our HC the nod over the opponent.
The injuries have already been mentioned, and I don't think we'll know the real answer until 90 minutes before kickoff Thursday night.
The game is in Cincinnati, and the fans are still buzzing from last year's Superbowl run. They've only had the season opener at home to rain their heroes with cheers, so you know they'll embrace this opportunity to lift their guys up. We've seen that our team travels well, but that trip has to hit a little harder when it's coming after an exhausting game down in south Florida just a few days' prior.
Prediction: Bengals 27, Dolphins 24
I hate to do it. I really do. I genuinely hope that, like last week, I am dead wrong about this. I just can't get past how insanely tough the win over the Bills was on the defense. I fully expect them to give it everything they have, and against a weaker offense I would say they have the talent and grit to pull it off. But Burrow and that WR corps is one of the best. My vision of a Dolphins victory if is Mike McDaniel flips the script and goes really run-heavy, to keep the Bengals offense off the field. But we really haven't seen the run game come together just yet. If they manage to do it tomorrow, I think the Fins win, but I can't predict that.
How I've done thus far:
What do you think we see tomorrow? Let me know in the comments below. Fins up!!