The Miami Dolphins’ season is on life support.
Once looking so promising at 8-3 with a playoff spot all but guaranteed — with talk about whether the team could supplant the Buffalo Bills in the AFC East, a five-game losing streak has now put the Dolphins in a position where they need to count on others to make the playoffs.
They need a win in next Sunday’s finale against the New York Jets, plus a New England Patriots loss to the Buffalo Bills to leap back into the AFC’s No. 7 seed.
With the team down starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, left tackle Terron Armstead, cornerback Xavien Howard and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb and then having backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater go down, Miami did not have enough and didn’t do enough to win on New Year’s Day in Foxborough.
Here’s how the South Florida Sun Sentinel grades the Dolphins’ 23-21 loss to the Patriots on Sunday:
Passing game: C-
It looked like it was being managed well by Bridgewater, but then there was the costly mistake.
I’m not sure what Bridgewater saw when he was intercepted by Kyle Dugger and had the pick returned 39 yards for a touchdown, injuring himself in the process on the tackle attempt. That ball had no chance of getting to Trent Sherfield.
Bridgewater’s afternoon ended at 12 of 19 for 161 yards, an impressive, improvised touchdown on a flip pass to Raheem Mostert and another throw to Tyreek Hill that technically went as a rushing touchdown because it was a backward pass. But the game-changing play Sunday came when Bridgewater was intercepted for a score.
It was a tough position for third-string QB Skylar Thompson to get thrown into, and he could never get the offense moving, outside of the late drive once New England led by two scores.
Hill had 55 receiving yards and Jaylen Waddle 52. How conservative the passing attack played out was evident in Mostert leading the team with eight catches for 62 yards, plus the touchdown.
The dump-offs were effective in limiting Patriots sacks, though. Without Armstead and losing Kendall Lamm Sunday to bring Greg Little back into the mix, each quarterback was only sacked once.
Running game: C
The ground game was relied upon heavily, which McDaniel said was influenced by wanting to limit opportunities for the Patriots to turn the Dolphins over and score with their defense — which they still did.
Miami churned out about 3 yards per carry with its tailbacks. Jeff Wilson Jr. had 15 carries for 45 yards, and Mostert collected 29 on his nine attempts.
The Dolphins ran on first down on their first 10 chances. They kept it on the ground in 14 of their first 16 first downs, so it turned into a predictable attack with the backup quarterback starting.
Defending the pass: D
A Dolphins secondary already depleted by injury took another blow with Howard, who has struggled throughout the season despite his Pro Bowl selection, unable to play with a knee injury sustained in practice.
When safety Jevon Holland had to step out to get his arm checked, Miami had an entire starting secondary and nickel package of players who were projected reserves to start the year — with Eric Rowe and Verone McKinley the safeties and Kader Kohou, Keion Crossen and Noah Igbinoghene the cornerbacks. That’s two undrafted rookies in that grouping.
Patriots second-year quarterback Mac Jones had his best game to date against Miami in earning his first win against the division rival. He was 20 of 33 for 203 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions.
It’s only 6.1 yards per attempt, but he didn’t make mistakes and gained occasional chunk plays. He also drew critical penalties on Crossen and Kohou as the Dolphins let rookie Miami product Tyquan Thornton, fellow receiver Jakobi Meyers and tight end Hunter Henry hurt them at different junctures while New England was without ex-Dolphin DeVante Parker.
Miami collected three sacks — Christian Wilkins, Elandon Roberts and Zach Sieler getting those — but there were too many instances where Jones had a clean pocket and all day to throw.
Defending the run: B-
The Patriots, as limited offensively as they are, knew to attack the Dolphins through the air against an ailing secondary, trusting Jones not to turn the ball over.
New England only went to its tailbacks 17 times, but the Patriots were moderately effective when they did go to the ground. Rhamondre Stevenson went for a 5.3 yards-per-carry average with 42 yards on eight carries. Damien Harris had 32 yards on nine attempts.
The grade isn’t lower because the Dolphins didn’t lose because of this aspect at all. Miami was fine here outside of a couple of big gains allowed — 18 yards to Stevenson and 11 to Harris — but the threat of its run defense alone was enough to influence the Patriots to throw more than they wanted to, even with the lead in the fourth quarter.
Special teams: C
It’s a 51-yard attempt, but these days, those are expected from NFL kickers. Jason Sanders missed his shot from that distance, and those 3 points ultimately could’ve made the difference, given the final score. Sanders is now 1 of 5 from 50-plus this season.
Boosting the Dolphins’ grade is the coffin corner punt from Thomas Morstead executed late in the first half, masterfully pinning the Patriots down at the 2-yard line. The Dolphins also had a decent day covering kick and punt returns, which has plagued them. They couldn’t pull off the onside kick at the end, which is always difficult.
It was a tough task to go up against a Bill Belichick-led team with so many key players out, but this was coach Mike McDaniel’s opportunity to prove he’s the offensive whiz he was hyped to be this offseason. He didn’t do anything creative or innovative to get the ball in the hands of Hill and Waddle. The play-calling was conservative with all the early-down runs, which McDaniel said was to minimize opportunities for New England takeaways. The Dolphins still lost the turnover battle, 2-0, and were penalized nine times for 71 yards — many in critical spots between holding, pass-interference calls and an illegal shift that preceded Thompson’s interception. The Dolphins also burned some timeouts at inopportune times, and McDaniel missed on his lone challenge, bringing his record to 0-4 when requesting replay review.
McDaniel hasn’t lost the locker room, as evidenced by a star player like Hill reverberating the coach’s message in his postgame comments. But McDaniel is missing something in how he’s communicating to his players, which he even admitted: “We’ve got to find different ways to get that message put forth and applied on the field, which is kind of Coaching 101.”
Stock up: Nobody
This team hasn’t won since November 2022. Things are down across the board.
Stock down: Mike McDaniel
He was up there in Coach of the Year talks at the end of November. Now, his team is on a five-game losing streak, on the brink of the franchise’s worst collapse to finish a regular season, and he has to be held accountable. Former coach Brian Flores was also 8-8 at this point in the 2021 season but was already eliminated. He won the finale to secure a second consecutive winning season but was still fired the next day. This was despite having a roster not nearly as talented, but owner Steve Ross also attributed the decision to communication and collaboration. I don’t think McDaniel has his job at stake against the Jets, but it would be deplorable to miss the playoffs after where this team stood heading into December.
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