For a Miami Dolphins defense that’s been tested all season, a few more critically important tests await starting with a Christmas Day matchup with Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay’s future Hall of Fame quarterback.
Given the choice, I choose to ride with the defense to finish the job.
After the Rodgers matchup, a New Year’s Day game awaits with New England and quarterback Mac Jones, and then comes the regular-season finale and a matchup with the New York Jets and quarterback Zach Wilson, or quarterback Mike White, a Pembroke Pines native.
The defense, which has been eyed suspiciously by most, must answer the call.
Fortunately for the Dolphins (8-6) they’ve got a defense that’s capable of answering that call.
Let’s not sugarcoat facts. This defense has struggled. They give up lots of yards through the air. They were 26th in the league at 246.3 yards per game when play began Sunday. They’ve allowed at least 23 points in all eight road games. And they’re a starkly different crew at home and on the road. But you also know they’ve made plays.
It happened against Buffalo with the fumble caused against quarterback Josh Allen, the man who carved these guys up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The defense almost made another big play when it came within two inches of denying Allen a game-tying two-point conversion Saturday night. But after that the defense committed a costly pass interference penalty that led to the Bills’ game-winning field goal with no time remaining.
So, yeah, they have flaws.
Regardless, I’ll ride with this defense just as I have all season.
The offense? They’ve got some issues, too. But compared to the defense, the offense is a flashy, star-studded, high-profile crew among quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was mentioned in MVP talks as recently as a few weeks ago, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who has been mentioned as a longshot MVP candidate, fellow wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, stud left tackle Terron Armstead, and coach Mike McDaniel and his innovative offense.
Few question whether the offense can get the job done in this stretch run.
In fact, the offense should be asked to carry the vast majority of the burden because it has more raw talent. But that won’t happen.
It’s a bit more plucky and low key. It’s doubted way more often than the offense.
But this defense, dotted with team captains such as defensive lineman Christian Wilkins, linebacker Elandon Roberts, and cornerback Xavien Howard, and getting major contributions from guys such as edge rusher Jaelan Phillips, linebacker Jerome Baker and safety Jevon Holland, showed in Saturday’s 32-29 loss at Buffalo it can still make plays.
And you expect them to make plays. After all, they made the “go for it” move by trading with Denver to acquire edge rusher Bradley Chubb and then gave him a $110 million contract. With that acquisition they changed their playing style to a defense that’s led by its pass rush trio of Phillips, Chubb and linebacker Melvin Ingram instead of a group that leads with its shutdown cornerbacks.
Expectations were raised.
Yeah, this defense has been pushed around a bit. They’ve been criticized, berated, shortchanged, overlooked and frequently unfairly blamed. But they’ve got skins on the wall.
They’ve beaten New England and Jones, Buffalo and Allen earlier this season, Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, Chicago’s Justin Fields, Detroit’s Jared Goff. That’s a decent group. Granted, it’s not a collection of Hall of Famers, but a decent group.
The defense held New England to 20 points in the opener and, in Week 3, held Allen and Buffalo to 21 points.
The catch, of course, is the defense has lost to Allen, Justin Herbert of the Los Angeles Chargers, Wilson of the New York Jets, Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, Minnesota’s Kirk Cousins and even San Francisco’s Brock Purdy.
That doesn’t bode well for the Rodgers matchup.
But here’s the thing, there’s a chance Rodgers doesn’t give a damn about this Christmas Day game with the Dolphins. And there’s a chance Rodgers doesn’t even play. Perhaps the Packers play backup Jordan Love. Green Bay, 5-8 heading into Monday night’s game against the Los Angeles Rams, is going nowhere. So perhaps the Dolphins get a freebie as the Packers look to see what they have in Love. And remember the Dolphins are 5-0 against teams below .500.
Even if the Dolphins defense has to work hard, harder than it has worked all season for this victory, and one other to secure a playoff berth, the defense, which has its flaws, can get the job done.
This defense has dug deep this season. Its personnel losses have been heavy.
But they’ve answered the call with undrafted rookies such as cornerback Kader Kohou and safety Verone McKinley, blue-collar guys such as defensive linemen Zach Sieler, Raekwon Davis and John Jenkins, linebackers Andrew Van Ginkel and Duke Riley and defensive backs Justin Bethel, Clayton Fejedelem, Noah Igbinoghene, Eric Rowe and Elijiah Campbell. They keep finding ways to compete.
This defense will be challenged greatly in the final three games, first (possibly) by Rodgers, then by a road game, and then, finally, by their rival, the Jets, who beat them, 40-7, earlier this season.
I’m betting the defense holds up its end of the deal as the Dolphins make their march towards clinching a playoff berth.