The Miami Dolphins lost in embarrassing fashion on the road last week against the Baltimore Ravens. The defense was exposed and nothing was working on offense. The loss knocked the Dolphins out of the driver’s seat for the second Wild Card spot in the playoffs. Now the Dolphins come back home to face the Arizona Cardinals in NFL Week 14. They look to pick up the pieces and get back on track for their first playoff appearance since 2008.
The Cardinals came into the 2016 season with high hopes. They were one of the league’s best teams last season, finishing the regular season 13-3 and with the NFC West crown. The season ended on a disappointing note, but reasons for optimism were abound. It’s been rough going in 2016, as the Cardinals are a game under .500 and on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.
Both teams could use a win, but which team will leave Miami victorious, and which will see their playoff hopes take a potentially fatal blow?
Dolphins Keys to Victory
Set the Tone Early – It’s going to be vital that the Dolphins get off to a quick start this Sunday against the Cardinals. After the loss they suffered at the hands of the Ravens, morale has almost certainly taken a hit. Getting out of the gates quickly and putting points on the board early will get Miami out of that funk. This is a team looking to change the locker room culture and a large part of that is not falling into the “here we go again” mindset. Early mistakes and facing an early deficit can take them down that road.
Get back on the “Jay Train” – Jay Ajayi had a tumultuous start to the 2016 season. He was inactive for the first game and sat behind Arian Foster after that. By midseason, however, Ajayi had exploded onto the scene, posting back-to-back 200-yard rushing games. He nearly single-handedly spurred the Dolphins on in the first two games of the six-game win streak.
Recently, it’s been a sharp fall back to reality for Ajayi. He has four-straight games under 100 yards and has not seen more than 20 carries since the Week 9 game against the New York Jets. It’s tough without Mike Pouncey, the team’s best run blocker, but the Dolphins need to get back to physical, smash-mouth football behind the talented young running back.
Step it up, Ryan – The Miami Dolphins struggles in the month of December have been well-documented. It’s something that has plagued this team long before Ryan Tannehill arrived. Tannehill, to date, has done little to buck this trend, however. The six-game win streak saw Tannehill receive a lot of praise for stepping up his game and leading the Dolphins to victory. Now is the time for him to once again raise his play and prove that he is the answer for the future.
Not only does Tannehill need to prove that he can win in December, he needs to prove he can bounce back. Last Sunday’s loss is the kind of thing that can tank this team’s season. Tannehill can’t let that happen. He needs to be able to put this team on his back and lead them to victory. If the Dolphins are going to be playing in January, it’s going to be on the shoulders of the franchise quarterback.
Cardinals Keys to Victory
Punch Them in the Mouth – Miami was in the driver’s seat for their first playoff appearance in eight years. Then they suffered a blowout loss to the Ravens. They are bound to be reeling from the loss. The Cardinals should be looking to strike early at the Dolphins. Come out from the start and pound the rock. Though the Dolphins rushing defense has improved over the past few weeks, it’s still not good. If the Cardinals can come out and run the ball early, putting points on the board, they could demoralize Miami and coast to a win.
Exploit the Middle of the Field – The Baltimore Ravens exposed a weakness that has plagued the Dolphins the entire season—poor linebacker play. Whether it was an inability to stop the run or to cover a tight end or slot receiver, the play of the linebackers last Sunday was as bad as I’ve seen in a very long time. Joe Flacco and Dennis Pitta ran roughshod over the Dolphins linebackers the entire game. To say it was ugly is an understatement.
The Cardinals have the weapons to do exactly what the Ravens did, maybe to an even greater extent. Even in his advanced age, Larry Fitzgerald is still one of the best receivers in the game and is a weapon in the slot. Running back David Johnson is a dynamic playmaker in both the rushing and passing game. Tight end Jermaine Gresham has had a rough season. But he’s highly talented and could potentially break out on Sunday against these linebackers.
David Johnson – Speaking of David Johnson, now that Kurt Warner has retired, it’s not often we talk about someone from the University of Northern Iowa. David Johnson is well on his way to fixing that. He’s quickly becoming one of the best running backs in the league. A dynamic playmaker in both the running and passing games, Johnson is a legitimate contender for this season’s MVP award. He won’t win it due to the Cardinals record, but he’s got a strong case.
Johnson is going to pose a huge problem for the Dolphins, if the Cardinals decide to use him. The Dolphins have struggled all season against the run. Someone with the talent of Johnson should be able to have a field day against the linebackers. In the running game or the passing game, just feed Johnson the ball.
Both teams need to win this game to have any chance at the playoffs. The Cardinals still have an outside shot in the NFC. The Dolphins are still right in the thick of it in the AFC. It’s a tough road ahead for the Dolphins, who likely need to win out to clinch the Wild Card. I believe everyone knows what’s at stake, and the Dolphins bounce back.