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Wildcard Weekend: Miami at Kansas City Preview & Prediction

My look ahead at this Saturday’s Wildcard game between the Dolphins and Chiefs

NFL: JAN 07 Bills at Dolphins
Mike McDaniel and his Dolphins are now working to remove the “pretender” label that has been firmly affixed to them by many a fan and talking head.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Is it me, or does the Dolphins’ heartbreaking loss to Buffalo last Sunday night seem like a million years ago? Maybe it’s just that I’ve cycled through the five classic stages of grief three distinct times since then. Whatever the case, the loss matched my straight up prediction, putting my final regular season tally right where the Dolphins ended up:

driftinscotty’s 2023 Straight Up Predictions

Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
Game # Opponent Prediction Outcome My Straight Up Season Record
1 @Chargers L, 27-24 W, 36-34 0-1
2 @Patriots W, 27-20 W, 24-17 1-1
3 Broncos W, 34-17 W, 70-20 2-1
4 @Bills W, 34-24 L, 48-20 2-2
5 Giants W, 41-17 W, 31-14 3-2
6 Panthers W, 41-20 W, 42-21 4-2
7 @Eagles L, 27-24 L, 31-17 5-2
8 Patriots W, 31-20 W, 31-17 6-2
9 @Chiefs W, 27-24 L, 21-14 6-3
10 Raiders W, 31-10 W, 20-13 7-3
11 @Jets W, 24-10 W, 34-13 8-3
12 @Commanders W, 27-10 W, 45-15 9-3
13 Titans W, 38-13 L, 28-27 9-4
14 Jets L, 20-17 W, 30-0 9-5
15 Cowboys W, 27-20 W, 22-20 10-5
16 @Ravens W, 27-24 L, 56-19 10-6
17 Bills L, 31-17 L, 21-14 11-6
Apparently, I was exactly as good as the Miami Dolphins were this season.

Now, with an endless list of players on the Injured Reserve list, Miami must head into a polar vortex in Kansas City to see if they can rally for their first playoff win in over two decades. What are the states of the two clubs, and what can we expect this Saturday night?

Chiefs & Dolphins’ Recent History

As with the Buffalo game preview, I won’t worry about full-season stats. At this point, the overall numbers and rankings matter far less than where the teams actually stand right now. We all know what the Fins have done in the last three weeks: an inspiring win over the Cowboys in Week 16, followed by a horrendous drubbing at the hands of the Ravens in Baltimore the week after. Then in the final week of the regular season, Miami came up short against the Bills with the AFC East division title and the #2 seed on the line. Probably more important is the depressing amount of injuries the Dolphins sustained in the last couple of weeks (I’ll get to that later).

What about Kansas City’s last three games?

NFL: DEC 25 Raiders at Chiefs
One of two costly turnovers by the Chiefs offense against Las Vegas three weeks ago. For the first time in five seasons, Mahomes and the offense haven’t been good enough to overcome in-game gaffes like this.
Photo by William Purnell/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Week 16: Raiders at Chiefs: A weird game in keeping with a weird season for Kansas City. Hosting AFC West division rivals Las Vegas, the Chiefs looked extremely pedestrian in this one. The defenses dominated most of the first quarter, until the Raiders put together a good drive to get a field goal right before the quarter ended. After a couple more punts, the Chiefs drove for a touchdown midway through the second quarter, only to then give up a fumble returned for a touchdown and then a pick-six on the very next offensive play. Halftime score: 17-7, Vegas. Kansas City’s offensive struggles continued into the second half, while Vegas managed just enough to tack on another field goal to go up, 20-7. With under six minutes left in the game, the Chiefs put together a TD drive to keep the game interesting, but the Raiders methodically used an effective rushing game to kill the clock and win, 20-14. Though the Raiders only gained 48 total passing yards, they pummeled KC for 157 rushing yards on 29 carries - an average of a little over five yards per carry.

Week 17: Bengals at Chiefs: This was the Harrison Butker Show. Cincinnati opened the scoring with a field goal, with KC responding with a touchdown in the first quarter. The Bengals then crafted a touchdown drive to go up 10-7, then converted a Chiefs fumble on the next drive into another TD drive to go up 17-7 with a little over six minutes left in the first half. From that point until the end of the game, things went like this: Chiefs defense stifles a struggling Cincy offense, the Chiefs offense drives a bit but stalls, and Harrison Butker makes a field goal. Repeat that six times, and you get to the final score of a 25-17 win for Kansas City. KC’s offense moved the ball pretty well, tallying 373 total yards in a balanced effort against a Bengals team battling a few injuries and seeming off-kilter since the loss of Joe Burrow a couple of months prior. This game clinched the AFC West for the Chiefs, much later than has been their standard for the several years previous.

Week 18: Chiefs at Chargers: Meh. The Chiefs sat a bunch of their starters in this game, so there’s really not much to glean from this game. Kansas City won it 13-12 in what was mostly a field goal fiesta between Harrison Butker and Dicker The Kicker.

What I learned from these games:

  • The Chiefs offense is not what they were the previous five years, clearly. Travis Kelce’s age is starting to show a bit, and the receiving corps and offensive line have issues. It’s been bad enough that Patrick Mahomes, long the most chill and chipper QB in the NFL, finally lost control and started freaking out on people on the sidelines. All that said, they haven’t completely dropped off a cliff. Mahomes can still do wild, circus-like things if given half a chance, and Isaiah Pacheco is a serious threat with some space to operate.
Super Bowl LIV - San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs
Chris Jones continues to be the monster in the middle of an intimidating Chiefs defensive line.
Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images
  • The Kansas City defense is the stronger part of this team. Their front continues to create plenty of pressure on opposing QBs, causing lesser signal-callers to panic and make bad decisions. It should be noted, however, that nearly all of the Chiefs’ defense’s really good games in the last two months came against backup QBs and/or some of the weaker offenses in the NFL (e.g. the Raiders and Bengals recently).
  • The KC defense is vulnerable to the run. They’re not horrible at run defense, but they’ve given up at least 100 yards rushing in all but three games this season. If an opposing offense has a solid, even relatively dynamic rushing attack, they can move the ball against this defense.
  • The Chiefs’ MVP of scoring is arguably placekicker Harrison Butker. The guy has only missed two field goals all year; he’s hit all seven field goals between 40 and 49 yards and all five attempts 50 yards or more. He’s also not missed a single extra point. He’s basically had as good a season as a PK can have, which is great for Kansas City since they needed that kind of performance to win a few games this season.

How does all this stack up to the Dolphins?

Miami vs Kansas City Unit Matchups

***WEATHER WARNING***

If the weather shakes out the way the forecasts have been saying, this will not be anything like a typical game. The temperature will be around zero degrees, with wind chill pushing it down to negative 20s or even lower. Snow is predicted not only before but quite possibly during the game. This changes a lot for these teams, primarily on offense. My feelings about the unit matchups are based on this.

Dolphins Offense vs Chiefs Defense: While many of the lazy national media have continued to tout the Dolphins offense as some great fireworks show, we fans know the reality. This offense has continued to be good but hardly the “Greatest Show on Surf” that they were dubbed back in September and October. The good thing is that the offense has a chance to go into this game fairly healthy. The real monkey wrench is the weather. The bitter cold, snow, and winds will almost certainly put a limit on what can be done through the air. That said, Tyreek Hill has had a great deal of success in cold games, in Kansas City, and in the playoffs many times before. That bodes well. The other aspect here is that the Fins do boast a very solid run game (though McDaniel went away from it last week). As mentioned, the Chiefs’ run defense is below average, so this is where I see Miami actually having a bit of an advantage. While the deep shots will be few and far between, it’s not hard to envision our speed guys getting a little head of steam and breaking off some big gains on designed runs and screens. Slight advantage: Dolphins

NFL: JAN 07 Bills at Dolphins
Christian Wilkins and Zach Seiler have held down the interior line all season - the one unit on the team that’s remained mostly healthy through 2023.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dolphins Defense vs Chiefs Offense: It’s all about the injuries here. In isolation, the Chiefs offense isn’t super scary. As mentioned before, they’re good. But they’re not “The” Kansas City Chiefs offense that has won two of the last four Superbowls. The receivers are highly unreliable, aside from Rashee Rice coming on a bit lately. Travis Kelce is getting a wee bit long in the tooth. The offensive line has been porous at times, forcing Patrick Mahomes into “Houdini” mode way more often. Mahomes himself has made far more errors and posted the worst statistical season of his amazing six years as a starter. Were this about six weeks ago, this would be a clear advantage for the Dolphins. But in the last six weeks, the Dolphins defense has lost more defenders than the Alamo, with most of those left standing fighting through an assortment of injuries. No joke. Of the eleven starters projected at the beginning of this season, only three of them are not either on IR or listed with some sort of injury (coincidentally, it’s the three interior linemen of Wilkins, Seiler, and Davis). Even against a hobbled and lesser version of the Chiefs offense, it’s a lot to ask of a bunch of backups and guys who they signed off the street the last two weeks to get out there for playoff ball against an offense that still has some juice. Advantage: Chiefs.

Special Teams, Coaching, and Other Factors

Special Teams: Just when I thought Miami’s special teams were trending up, they give up massive, back-breaking returns for touchdowns in the kicking game in back-to-back, gotta-have-it weeks. Hay problema. The Chiefs have excellent special teams, headed up by nearly infallible placekicker Harrison Butker. Advantage: Chiefs

Coaching: Look, I’m not bailing on Mike McDaniel. While I question certain decisions like many of you, I also realize that this guy has overseen the first back-to-back playoff appearances for the Fins in over two decades. Yes, he’s been handed a great roster, but he’s also overseen a team fight through some pretty wild and copious injuries. He’s definitely earned the benefit of my doubts. In terms of playoffs, McDaniel rallied a 2022 Fins team that had a talent-deficient defensive roster and an offense that was on its third-string QB and actually gave the Buffalo Bills a real run for their money in the Wildcard game. McDaniel is no pushover. Still, that’s Andy Reid on the other side. I continue to view Reid as what Mike McDaniel has a good chance to be in about 20 years. McDaniel shares a lot of similarities with the Andy Reid of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And if I’m calling them the same kind of coach, I have to give the nod to the older, more accomplished version who has two Superbowl rings on his fingers. Advantage: Chiefs

Locale: Here’s the thing about the game being at Arrowhead in Antarctic conditions: the weather is kind of a wash. Yes, most of the Chiefs roster has way more experience playing in the cold. But I looked it up - in the last few years, the playoff games they’ve played have been in the 30s, with one of them in the 20s. As someone who has spent many years in places that experience legitimate winters, I can tell you that those temps are cold, but zero degrees is a whole other thing. It’s rare for even KC to get that cold during an NFL game. I think this is the kind of thing that wipes out any advantage. We won’t know who had the advantage until the game is over, and we see which players actually withstood the blistering freeze and which ones didn’t. The other element here is the home crowd, and KC fans are famously raucous and supportive. They’ll be there, but the Chiefs are only 5-4 at home this year - a far cry from the home dominance that we’ve seen in the recent past. Slight advantage: Chiefs.

Miami Dolphins v Baltimore Ravens
Tyreek has had plenty of monster games at Arrowhead over the years, albeit for the home team. Just one or two big catches and runs this Saturday could be game-changing.
Photo by Michael Owens/Getty Images

Other Potential X-Factors: This is an interesting one. In terms of motivation, you’re dealing with a Chiefs team with many members sitting on two Superbowl rings. They’re champs and have that champion mentality, certainly, but is there a dash of “what do we have to prove?” with them? Could that explain a little bit of the slippage towards mediocrity that we’ve seen in the regular season? I’m not saying this is a conscious thing, but against a Dolphins team with everything to prove, it might matter. After two rough losses to end their otherwise strong regular season, just about everyone who’s not a dedicated Fins fan is giving them no shot at this. On a specific level, I imagine that Tyreek Hill has not been happy with some of his costly drops in recent weeks, as well as the one he had against his former team in Germany a few months ago. If the end of last season is anything to go on, McDaniel has shown some ability to get his team to exceed expectations when the chips are down and they’re considered clear underdogs. Last season, with 3rd-string QB Skylar Thompson under center against a strong, playoff-tested Bills team, the Dolphins really made Buffalo work for the win up in Orchard Park. I think there’s a chance that we see that kind of moxie tapped for this Saturday.

Prediction: Dolphins 17, Chiefs 20

This was a really tough prediction for me, given the weather conditions. Brutal cold and winds are going to make the running games of both teams key, and stopping burners like Mostert, Achane, and Pacheco are going to put serious stress on the defenses. I think our Fins are going to put up a really solid fight here, and I will not be at all shocked by a win. But to me, these teams have been operating at the same level for the last two months - talented teams with obvious flaws. Ultimately, I have to give a slight nod to the home team with a glaringly more impressive recent resume in playoff games.

What do you think, my fellow Fins fans? Do we see our guys lose a close Wildcard game on the road for the second straight year, or do they gut out their first playoff win in 23 years? Throw your thoughts down in the comments section.

FINS ALL THE WAY UP!!!