Michael Lombardi: The AFC’s road to the Super Bowl may go through Miami

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The AFC’s road to the Super Bowl may go through Miami

This time of the year, many retired families head to Florida for the winter. South Florida becomes a mixture of New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. There are Dunkin’s for the Boston loyalist, great bagels for the New York crowd and Wawa’s for all the Philadelphia guests. Florida becomes a melting pot of the east. It’s a smart move; why suffer through another winter? This year’s Dolphins team is similar to all the people heading south, only they don’t have to move.

To finish the season, the Dolphins will be warm for 4 of the next 5 games, playing three home games in a row against the Titans, Jets and Cowboys. One quick trip to Baltimore and then they finish the season against the Bills in Florida.  Had the Dolphins been asked to produce a schedule of their choosing, I’m confident, there wouldn’t be much of a difference.

At 9-3, currently holding the number one seed, and four remaining home games, where the Dolphins are unbeaten, they have a chance to make the 2023 AFC playoff race run through the Sunshine State.  And let’s face it, the Fins are a different team at home than the cold road. 

The warm weather helps their offense operate at a high level, which isn’t to imply they can’t win on the road. They’re just better at home. But what makes this Dolphins team different from seasons past is their defense. For all the off-season player moves, hiring Vic Fangio as their defensive coordinator gives Miami the best chance they’ve had to get to a Super Bowl in a long time. 

Since losing to the Eagles earlier this season, Miami’s defense has been exceptional. They have held their opponents to under 300 yards in five games, forced eight turnovers and have forced the opposition to play left-handed. Washington leads the NFL in passing attempts, but they only gained 107 yards in the air against Miami. The Dolphins had a pick-six for a touchdown and shut down Washington’s offense.

Against most coordinators, Fangio holds an advantage, and when he has good players that fit his scheme, the defense can dominate. My belief they can secure the number one seed resides in their ability to play defense. If their offense complements their defense, they will be a hard team to beat.  

I am fully aware that Buffalo scored 48 on them in Week 4. During the first four weeks of the season, while installing their new defensive system, Miami allowed 29.75 points.  Since then, they have allowed 18.3 by dominating the line of scrimmage and making it impossible for their opponents to have a balanced attack.

When they lost to Philadelphia and Kansas City, two teams with winning records, it was the offense that failed to play well. The Dolphins failed to gain over 300 yards twice this season; they lost both games. Their four lowest offensive yardage games were against the Eagles, Chiefs and in both Patriots games. They averaged 21.5 points in those four games—which is well below their 32.0 points per game. When the Dolphins play a physical defensive front that is well coached, the offense has struggled to be explosive. 

But when they play an average front with a poor scheme, like Washington attempted this past week, they dominate the game. Miami can be a covering machine against bad teams because their defense will keep the opponent from scoring points and the offense will keep scoring. This week, they face a bad pass coverage team in the Titans without star defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons inside. The Titans couldn’t hold Garner Minshew to under 30 points last week, and they will struggle to prevent Miami from scoring, while the Dolphins will keep Will Levis and the Titans offense in check. The Titans are the kind of team the Dolphins feast on, which is why the line is 13.5 and moving to 14.   

We get enamored with the Miami offense because of the big plays and explosive nature, yet those plays occur against bad teams. The longest pass against Philadelphia was for 29 yards. It was 31 vs. the Chiefs. Tyreek Hill is on pace for a record-breaking 2,000 receiving yards for the season and has only four games of not reaching 100 yards in a game. The Dolphins are 1-3 in those games—his lowest output was against the Patriots when rookie corner Christian Gonzalez was still playing, and the Fins scored 24 points.  Philadelphia, Kansas City and Buffalo all forced the ball to other receivers, something most of the bad teams facing the Dolphins failed to do. 

In Miami’s three losses this season, all on the road, Tua Tagovailoa has been sacked 13 times as opposed to four at home. Six of his ten interceptions (4th most in the NFL) have occurred on the road, and his quarterback rating drops from 117.3 at home to 97.5.  Also, six have occurred on third down—which requires him to hold the ball slightly longer. 

Because the Fins want to protect Tua from getting hit and concussed again, the ball comes out quickly. His 2.38 time to throw is the lowest in the NFL. Tua wants to throw the ball to his first read, and head coach Mike McDaniel does an outstanding job of having the first read wide open. If the first read is gone, then problems begin. The Miami offensive line isn’t physical or able to hold their blocks long enough, which is why they have trouble with good teams.

Their scheme is set up to compensate for the lack of talent in the offensive line, which is why they have to run the ball effectively to control the pace of the game. If they don’t win a playoff game, it will be because of their lack of talent in the offensive line and how good defensive coordinators plan their attack. Against playoff-caliber teams, they must find a way to make explosive plays without counting on Hill to be in single coverage like he was last weekend. 

Miami can enjoy the sun at home for the next three weeks, knowing their defense will play well against any opponent. What they need to resolve is how the offense will handle a good team. If they can solve that question, they will be the number one seed.  If they can’t, they might have to return to the north.