The Miami Dolphins are trying to make the playoffs the hard way, which AFC wild card is most dangerous and much more this week.
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores is walking a tightrope.
Among the favorites for NFL Coach of The Year, Flores has guided the Dolphins to the doorstep of the postseason — depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game in Buffalo against the Bills. Flores has turned the Dolphins around while volleying back and forth between rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and comeback wizard Ryan Fitzpatrick.
“I think he’s handling it just right,” NFL Network analyst and former Super Bowl winning head coach Brian Billick tells FanSided. “They want to go with Tua, but in critical situations, like they did the other day, they go with the veteran experience of Fitzpatrick and I think they’re walking that line very well.”
The latest critical situation for Flores and the Dolphins came Saturday night, in a must-win game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
Flores yanked the No. 5 overall pick with 9:47 to go and the Dolphins trailing 16-13 with their playoff hopes fading fast. To that point, Tagovailoa had completed 17-of-22 passes for just 94 yards and a touchdown.
But, Flores sensed the Dolphins needed a spark, and Fitzpatrick certainly delivered one … and a monumental win.
With the pocket collapsing around Fitzpatrick, and Raiders defensive end Arden Key yanking at his helmet and twisting it almost 360 degrees around his head, Fitzpatrick heaved the ball deep down the sideline to Mack Hollins for a 34-yard gain.
— NFL (@NFL) December 27, 2020
Fitzpatrick’s miracle pass set up the game-winning field goal that sealed a 26-25 victory.
NextGen Stats gave Fitzpatrick just a 10.9 percent chance of completing the pass, but Flores’ handling of the quarterback situation gave the Dolphins a significantly better chance of making the playoffs and maybe even making some noise once they arrive there.
Almost immediately following Fitzpatrick’s latest sorcery, Flores announced that Tagovailoa would get the start Sunday afternoon against the Bills in a must-win situation.
That could be a tough sell to the 51 other players on the Dolphins’ roster, especially when the head coach seemingly doesn’t believe the rookie can deliver in the biggest moments of critical games.
“Tua’s the guy going forward,” Billick said. “But, as a rookie and in these critical situations, they think Fitzpatrick can deliver a little bit better. … You hate that Tua isn’t getting those experience in those specific situations, but it’s a fine line to walk and I think they’re doing a great job with it.”
The Dolphins’ situation is rare in that unlike the Los Angeles Chargers with rookie Justin Herbert or many other top teams that land a potential franchise quarterback in the NFL Draft who plays come hell or high water, the Dolphins are in the thick of a playoff chase with a quarterback chosen in the top-five picks.
Miami also might have the perfect complement not just to Tagovailoa but as a relief pitcher in big spots in Fitzpatrick, a 38-year-old veteran who has lived a charmed NFL existence in his 15-year career where he’s journeyed through eight different franchises.
“I think playing both guys for various reasons can be really good for a rookie starter,” former NFL quarterback Sage Rosenfels tells FanSided. “Especially having a guy like Fitzpatrick who has no ego and has seen everything. Fitzy has a great mentality of living in reality without having the big ego you see from most NFL quarterbacks.”
Flores must keep an eye trained on the organization’s future as his own job security is likely at least partially tied to Tua’s development.
However, the lifespan of NFL coaches is short, and so too can be the patience of a locker room full of veterans in the throes of a playoff chase. So, Flores owes it to his players to — and to himself — to put the quarterback out there that gives his team the best chance to win this Sunday.
Might the second-year head coach be risking a mutiny in his locker room by trotting Tagovailoa out Sunday afternoon in Frigid Buffalo against the white hot Bills, in a game the Dolphins absolutely have to have to preserve any hope of making the playoffs?
“Players know,” Billick said, downplaying any thought that Flores might be risking his locker room. “They see what Tua does well, they know he’s the future. I’m sure they’re all on board with it.
“It’s a problem if there’s a strong belief one way or the other and Fitzpatrick’s their guy and that’s who they want to go with, but I don’t know if that’s the case, they see what Tua does, they’ve won with Tua.”
The Dolphins, and Flores, are placing a huge bet that Tua can get them the biggest win of all on Sunday, because with a victory they’ll not only clinch a playoff berth but Flores’ high-wire act would lead his team to entering the tournament as the No. 5 seed in the AFC.
Don’t sleep on the bottom of the AFC bracket
Following this unprecedented NFL season that has somehow miraculously meandered through 17 weeks despite COVID-19 lurking behind every corner, without the league needing to extend the season, there’s a chance the playoffs will be even crazier.
Nowhere is this more evident than at the bottom of the AFC bracket.
While Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and Josh Allen’s surging Buffalo Bills are seemingly on a collision course for the AFC Championship Game, don’t pencil them in just yet …
“It’s wide open on that side,” a current NFC personnel director tells FanSided. “And you’re going to see some upsets.”
Here’s the situation in the AFC behind the three division champions that have secured their spots entering Sunday’s regular season finale:
- Tennessee Titans: 10-5, leading the AFC South, at Houston TexansMiami Dolphins: 10-5, 2nd AFC East, at Buffalo BillsBaltimore Ravens: 10-5, 2nd AFC North, at Cincinnati BengalsCleveland Browns: 10-5, 3rd NFC North, at Pittsburgh SteelersIndianapolis Colts: 10-5, 2nd AFC South, vs. Jacksonville Jaguars
One of those five teams will be left out in the cold next week. The four that go on to secure playoff spots will certainly have earned it, after going through the gauntlet.
In a testament to the parity and depth of the conference, there is no consensus among league insiders which team has the best chance to not only get into the tournament but make some noise in the sprint to the Super Bowl.
“The team I wouldn’t want anything to do with is the Ravens,” a current AFC offensive coordinator tells FanSided. “They have a good run defense, some innovative blitz packages, and the offense can run it on you all day.”
The coordinator says he isn’t sold on the Titans’ defense or the Dolphins’ offense and gives the Browns a puncher’s chance, but thinks the Ravens are best suited to perhaps keep the Chiefs from repeating.
Baltimore is heating up at the right time, riding a four-game winning streak and coming off a systematic dismantling of the Giants on Sunday afternoon, in a game where the Ravens controlled the ball for 22:38 of the first half.
Over the past four weeks, quarterback Lamar Jackson has completed 69 percent of his passes for 696 yards with eight touchdowns and two interceptions, while rushing for 333 yards and four scores.
“Baltimore has the chance to be dangerous because they have such a strong running game,” a former AFC scouting director tells FanSided. “They have zone read threats, and when healthy a tough defensive front they’ve paired with excellent cornerbacks. Their biggest question is whether Lamar can make enough big passes from the pocket.”
Despite those attributes, the NFC executive says he’d rather be the Ravens’ division rivals right now.
“The Browns are the toughest draw,” the executive tells FanSided. “Because, when they’re right, they can run the ball. If you get bad weather and they can control it. They don’t need to throw to win, they can run to win because they might have two of the top-15 running backs in the league and a great offensive line.”
Cleveland’s road to the playoffs just got significantly easier after Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin made the decision to rest Ben Roethlisberger and start backup Mason Rudolph on Sunday. If the Browns can take advantage of Tomlin’s belated Christmas gift, they’re a team not to be taken lightly.
Dwayne Haskins’ no good, very bad week in Washington
Ron Rivera and the Washington Football Team made the least surprising — and ultimately the right — decision on Monday to release quarterback Dwayne Haskins.
Rivera put the future of the organization over misguidedly trying to salvage the 15th-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft after Haskins gave Washington little choice but to move on.
“People around the league let the hype train run loose prior to last year’s draft,” an AFC college scouting director tells FanSided. “Very few people around this league thought he was very good at all.”
On the field, Haskins has been a monumental disappointment.
Through his first 16 games, Haskins completed just 60 percent of his passes for 2,804 yards with 12 touchdowns and 14 interceptions on the way to a 3-10 record in 13 starts.
Haskins, though, was an even bigger distraction and problem off the field.
Twice this season, Haskins broke COVID-19 protocol, including a maskless strip club jaunt that put his entire team and recent cancer survivor head coach in danger of contracting a potentially deadly virus. Last season, Haskins was too busy taking selfies with fans to take the field for the final kneel downs of a win over the Detroit Lions.
Washington was well within its rights to strip Haskins of his captaincy last week, and by cutting ties with a first-round quarterback with just 16 games under his belt, the organization sent a clear message to the rest of the league that the Ohio State product isn’t worth the hassle.
Rivera was so fed up with Haskins that he would rather start someone named — checks notes — Tayler Heinicke, in a win-and-they’re-in game in Philadelphia against the Eagles in Week 17 than a former first-round pick.
Washington unceremoniously tossing Haskins aside, after his former head coach, Jay Gruden, and current head coach Ron Rivera wanted nothing to do with him gives 31 other teams the opportunity to try to harness the 23-year-old’s potential and try to teach him what it takes to be a professional.
That’s no easy task, but some team might try to undertake it.
“He’ll definitely get another job,” an NFC personnel executive tells FanSided. “If anyone claims him, it will be because they’re nervous about not getting him. But, if he clears waivers, he’ll get a minimum deal.
“He may even get two or three more opportunities. He’s so damn young. It’s not that he’s hurting other people, he’s just hurting himself. There’s no one in Washington to be a mentor for him. The new coach didn’t want him, especially the way he was talking about Tua at the Combine, Jay wanted Daniel Jones, and the kid’s been a hard-luck case. But, he’s not a drug user, he’s not out there beating women, hurting people or anything like that, he’s just an idiot. He’s a young, immature idiot, but he has a lot of arm-talent.”
Regardless of how things work out with Haskins, give Rivera and Washington credit for moving on as quickly as they have from a quarterback that they very obviously had no long-term plans for. The Football Team might win the NFC East and make the playoffs, but regardless of whether they beat the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday or not, they can enter the offseason with a clean slate at quarterback and find the passer they hope to build a future with.
Heck, in this unprecedented and pathetic year in the NFC East, if Washington loses Sunday, they might be within reach of one of the top quarterbacks in next spring’s NFL Draft.
As for Haskins, he wouldn’t be the first young quarterback with plenty of talent to flame out of the league, but he may follow a less-worn path out of the NFL skipping right past the journeyman backup reclamation project phase of his career.
“He’ll probably get a workout or two,” the AFC evaluator said. “Maybe he gets another chance, but Jamarcus Russell never did. Dwayne, like Russell, has the chance to be a cautionary tale.”
“It’s just the beginning. Our goal when we started out, especially in this year, was just get in the dance, and, now, it’s win 11 games.”
– Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians after Saturday’s blowout win over the Detroit Lions
The Buccaneers have a chance to be very dangerous in the NFC, and not just because they’ll have Tom Brady at quarterback in January.
For all of the talk about whether or not Arians have been on the same page or if this is a team rather than an explosive collection of mercenaries at the skill positions, Tampa Bay’s systematic demolition of the undermanned Lions on Saturday that saw Brady toss four touchdowns in the first half felt like the kind of confidence booster and springboard this team needed.
Arians is making the right call by playing his starters in Week 17, despite locking into the NFC Wild Card with last week’s win, because it’s another opportunity for Brady to get and stay on the same page with the likes of receivers Chris Godwin and Mike Evans and if running back Ronald Jones can return, his full arsenal of weapons.
Tampa Bay was my preseason pick to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and if they play the way they have the past month while averaging over 34 points per game during a three-game winning streak, they might just be the biggest threat to Aaron Rodgers and the top-seeded Green Bay Packers.
What I’ll be watching
A Week 17 unlike any other.
There are no short of 13 teams still alive for playoff berths, underscoring the brilliance of the NFL expanding the playoffs to seven teams in each conference which delivers a final weekend with almost unprecedented drama.
This week will also be unlike any Week 17 in recent memory because it could feature three teams that need a win to secure a playoff berth that are forced to start a quarterback making his first career start.
Taylor Heinicke might need to lead the Washington Football Team in a win-and-they’re in game against the Eagles, Chris Streveler will start for the Arizona Cardinals if Kyler Murray can’t go, John Wolford has never taken an NFL snap, but he’ll lead the Rams if Jared Goff can’t get back on the field after undergoing thumb surgery this week.
Additionally, the Cowboys will start Andy Dalton, who started the season as Dak Prescott’s backup, in a game the Cowboys need to win over the Giants to stay alive for the NFC East crown.
If nothing else, the final NFL Sunday of 2020 might just be the most “2020” sports day of the year.
We made it.
There were so many times leading up to the season, and amid outbreaks — particularly in Tennessee and Baltimore where it seemed unthinkable that the NFL could stage a complete season. But, assuming Sunday goes off without a hitch, here we are.
We can debate the merits of playing a season amid a deadly pandemic, but above all, the NFL, Dr. Allen Sills, the players, coaches, and 32 teams deserve immense credit for the Herculean lift it took to get here.
This season, we saw NFL games played on every day of the week, zero outright cancellations, and zero need to expand the season to a Week 18 or build any bubbles.
As we close the book on the 2020 regular season this week and look ahead to the postseason beginning next Saturday afternoon, let’s not forget to recognize the outstanding job the league did to get us across the finish line on schedule.
Matt Lombardo is the site expert for GMenHQ, and writes Between The Hash Marks each Wednesday for FanSided. Follow Matt on Twitter: @MattLombardoNFL.