The Week That Was
A second week, a second nail-biter. It was quite different in many ways to the week 1 win over the Chargers, but the Fins 24-17 victory over the AFC East division rival Patriots provided the same gall-bladder-in-throat feeling in the fourth quarter. All the same, Mike McDaniel and the Fins made enough big plays and overcame Bill Belichick’s trademark, savvy adjustments to get another win on the road and get to 2-0 to start the season. This also puts me at 1-1 in the straight-up picks department:
driftinscotty’s 2023 Predictions
|1||@Chargers||L, 27-24||W, 36-34|
|2||@Patriots||W, 27-20||W, 24-17|
Recent History Review
Since 2018, the Dolphins have only played Denver once – in 2020. And any of us who remember that game have been trying desperately to forget it, for many reasons. Without getting into the gory details, this was Tua’s fourth start in his rookie year under 2nd-year head coach Brian Flores. The Fins were actually riding a 5-game winning streak before they went into the thin air of Mile High Stadium, where Tua played like he was huffing whippits between snaps. He got benched for FitzMagic, who nearly pulled off a typically Fitzy wild comeback. Alas, the team came up short to Broncos head coach Vic Fangio’s stout defense, losing 20-13. This was one of the earliest pieces of ammunition for extreme Tua skeptics.
This isn’t to bring up traumatic memories for us – it’s more to take a moment to see how much the Dolphins have changed. There are only 15 players from that 2020 roster still on the team, and the entire coaching staff has been completely overhauled at this point. Both Miami and Denver will feature a few familiar faces but are otherwise markedly different squads in 2023.
Speaking of Denver…
Denver’s Last Two Games: Las Vegas & Washington
In week 1, Denver engaged in a drunken slap-boxing match at home against the visiting Las Vegas Raiders. It was a semi-back-and-forth affair marred by penalties (10 on each team for a total of 180 yards). Russell Wilson’s passing stat of 27 of 34 looks really good until you see that he only passed for 177 yards – a sad 5.2 yards per attempt – speaking to the check-down nature of the Broncos passing game that afternoon. Weirdly, the Broncos did have three drives of 70 or more yards, with the first two resulting in touchdowns. Those were both in the first half, which was by far the better on the day for Denver. In the second half, aside from a 75-yard drive that yielded merely a field goal, they were shut down. The final insult was when they got the ball with 6:31 left and down 17-16, and capitalized on that by going 3-and-out after gaining a scant 7 yards before punting. The Broncos' defense fared better, only surrendering 261 yards to the Raiders' offense, though this is a bit less impressive if you saw that Raiders offense get held to 240 yards the following week by Buffalo. Thus, Denver started 0-1.
Last Sunday, Denver got to play host again, this time to the Washington Commanders. It all started so well for Sean Payton and his team as they attempted to rebound from the loss to Vegas. At the 7:57 mark of the 2nd quarter, Denver was up 21-3 and had just forced Washington to punt yet again. Then, the pendulum swung the other way. Hard. Russell Wilson got sacked on the second play of the next possession, turning the ball over on a fumble. From that point, Denver would get outscored 32 to 3 over the next 30 minutes of game action, putting them in a 35-24 hole with 7:11 left in the game. The Broncos scraped back into it with a plodding, 15-play, 65-yard drive that yielded another 3 points via field goal, giving them a slim hope with 1:50 left in the game and down 35-27. True to Washington form, they obliged by going 3-and-out and punting. What followed was the crazy highlight that nearly everyone saw for the rest of Sunday and the early parts of this past week: with time expiring, Russell Wilson chucked the ball downfield and toward the heavens. When it came down amongst a mosh pit of Washington and Denver players, it got volleyballed up, around, and eventually into the desperate hands of Broncos wide receiver Brandon Johnson as he stood in the end zone. The Broncos capitalized on this miracle by completely wetting themselves and not getting the 2-point conversion, losing the game 35-33 and dropping to 0-2.
A few things I took away from watching these two games:
- Compared to last year’s low bar, Denver is improved under Sean Payton, but it’s not good and it might be a while until they are. The roster is just a bit too talent-deprived to be consistently strong in any phase of the game right now.
- There’s a lot of inconsistency on both sides of the ball. The offense and defense will each look fine and even “good” for some short stretches, and then look completely lost for long periods. In watching their first two games, I couldn’t pick out a single unit that stood out as being part of any sort of “identity” that the 2023 squad can hang its hat on. This was in stark contrast in their game against Washington, a team with issues to be sure, but one that looks to rely on a defensive front that can be devastating much of the time. Denver does have some talent at the WR position, but Wilson is yet to completely gel with all of them enough for this team to be considered a consistent threat in that realm.
- Russell Wilson. I’ll get into this more later in this article, but he’s in a strange place. He’s still good enough to work some magic here and there, but I felt like I was seeing a man adhering to the Pete “Maverick” Mitchell approach: his ego writing checks that his body can’t cash. And right now, the Broncos offense is Goose sitting in the back seat, waiting to get lethally slammed into a canopy because of their pilot’s bad decisions.
Dolphins vs. Broncos Unit Matchups
Dolphins Offense vs. Broncos Defense: This one bodes well for Miami. In their first two games, Mike McDaniel showed that he can design offenses that can win in very different ways. Shut down my running game? Fine, I’ll let Tua and the stud receivers tear you apart. Take away the deep threats by dropping DBs back? Fine, I’ll gash you with Raheem Mostert and shorter, quick-hitter passes. The Broncos defense did stifle the Raiders in week 1, but that Raiders offense is mildly dysfunctional these days (sort of Josh McDaniels’ lowkey trademark, when not with the Pats). The next week, they made Commanders QB Sam Howell look like Joe Montana during Washington’s 30-minute-long score fest. The Denver defense was often playing soft in both the pass and run, several times leaving receivers wide open. As long as McDaniel doesn’t try to get too cute with the offensive playcalling, Miami should get almost everything they want. Even more so if Terron Armstead is back at left tackle, as is expected. Advantage: Dolphins.
Dolphins Defense vs. Broncos Offense: Denver’s offense is rather schizoid right now. They’ve shown flashes, but it’s mostly a slog. They gave up seven sacks against Washington, due to a combination of the Commanders’ strong D line, poor O-line play by Denver, and Russell Wilson’s tendency to hold onto the ball while he envisions hero throws and the TikTok videos that he’ll edit post-game. While Miami’s D line doesn’t boast quite as much talent as Washington, they’re not far behind. They should be able to get plenty of pressure on Wilson for some sacks and forced bad decisions. That said, Wilson does still have the ability to uncork a few impressive downfield throws. This is about the only reason they moved the ball last Sunday, as Wilson had completions of 60 yards, 53 yards, and the miracle 50-yard bomb at the end (these 3 completions accounted for over half of Denver’s passing yards in this game). Now, that last one was a desperation chuck into a ton of traffic that just happened to bounce off three Washington defenders, but the first two were absolute dimes. Those have long been the type of thing that Wilson lives for, and he can still do it a few times a game. Fortunately, Miami has a better defensive backfield than Washington, so I’ll be surprised if Wilson has such open targets to throw to. While I worry a bit about Eli Apple’s propensity for committing pass interference, Xavien Howard, Kader Kohou, and the lads should be able to keep up with the Broncos' receiving corps without too much stress. Advantage: Dolphins.
Coaching, Special Teams, and Other Factors
Coaching: It’s Sean Payton, who will likely end up a Hall of Fame coach. He oversaw a brilliant stretch in New Orleans, and he’s pretty much seen and done it all. His presence in Denver does appear to be making them look like a slightly more functional NFL team, but even a great coach can only do so much with limited talent. Mike McDaniel, as we’ve seen the last two weeks, is proving to be a highly formidable young head coach. He hasn’t flinched against tough, vastly more experienced head coaches like Bill Belichick. He also seems to be improving. Last year, two of the most obvious bugaboos were penalties and clock management. So far through two games this season, the Fins have incurred the 9th fewest penalty yards, and I haven’t noticed nearly the amount of clock issues that we constantly saw in 2022. On top of this, Vic Fangio’s defense looked far more like what we expected against New England than what we saw in L.A. in week 1. Sean Payton is great and always loves mixing in some high-risk, high-reward plays, but I can’t see him outfoxing Miami in a way that tips the scales all that much. Advantage: EVEN/NONE
Penalties: I mentioned the Dolphins ranking of 9 in the fewest penalty yards so far. Denver? They’re another tale, ranking 27th in the same category. They racked up 9 penalties for 58 yards against Washington, and a whopping 10 penalties for 83 yards the previous week against Las Vegas. They’re simply sloppy, and Miami’s skill players on both sides of the ball have a tendency to force opposing players into penalties. Advantage: Dolphins
Special Teams: Well, the Fins still have their issues. We saw the blocked field goal last week, thanks to Bill Belichick’s ever-present special teams wiles. On balance, though, the Fins are roughly average. Though Jason Sanders looks nothing like his 2020 All-Pro form, at least he’s hit most of his field goals and he hasn’t allowed a kickoff to be returned. The punting game isn’t great, but at least Braxton Barrios looks like a very sure-handed receiver back there who I’m not terrified will fumble the ball. Denver has actually been decent in special teams, though they have given up quite a few punt return yards - perhaps an area where Barrios can impact the game. Slight advantage: Broncos
Injuries: Things are looking better for the Fins now than they did back on Monday. Jalen Waddle exited concussion protocol and was able to practice on Friday. Terron Armstead was practicing, albeit in a “limited” way, all week. Really, it looks like the only player likely to miss the game is Salvon Ahmed. This is a bummer since he looked good against the Pats, but the Fins have a few other talented RBs on the bench. The Broncos have been missing multiple players on IR, but that’s been the case since week 1. Also, those players are all middle to minimal-impact rotational pieces, new projects, or special teamers. The one notable absence will be starting free safety Justin Simmons, one of Denver’s few truly high-quality players. Huge loss for them.
Other Factors: Our Dolphins finally get to host a game for the first time this season, though the South Florida weather may rear its head. As of writing, there’s a 60% chance of thunderstorms during game time. I’ll try to think positive thoughts and hope that the weather is merely hot and humid, rather than a deluge. If nothing else, we won’t have to worry about oxygen-deprived Tua making a return (man, that seems like an eternity ago). I have to think that the Fins Faithful at Hard Rock will be giving our guys a rousing, hero’s welcome in the wake of their 2-0 start on the road against solid teams. Excitement will be high, and probably so will plenty of the fans, if they’re tailgating correctly.
Prediction: Broncos 17, Dolphins 34
I was really, really close to predicting a hands-down blowout. However, I can easily see Russell Wilson connecting with his talented receivers on deep shots just enough times to prevent this from being a laugher. Still, I see the Dolphins as just having more talent in nearly every unit. Enough talent to exert their will on both sides of the ball for the majority of the game.
Now, if the skies open up and the rain starts to pour, it will be a very different game. A game, though, that will actually favor our Dolphins all the same. The Broncos’ one saving grace is Wilson’s ability to get those two or three deep shots every game - something that’s virtually impossible in a monsoon. The score will be drastically lower, but it should still be a solid Dolphins win if we get heavy rain.
That’s what I’ve got. What do you all think? Do the Dolphins get off to their second consecutive 3-0 start this Sunday? Drop a line in the comments box.