Beat the New York Jets and have the New England Patriots lose to the Buffalo Bills.
That’s what the season comes down to. That’s what it will take for the Miami Dolphins to qualify for the AFC playoffs, determining whether they head to a postseason for the first time since 2016 and third time since 2001 or if they complete arguably the franchise’s worst collapse to end a regular season.
It will all be settled with a pair of 1 p.m. kickoffs — the Dolphins (8-8) against the Jets (7-9) at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday while the venue’s scoreboards will likely be keeping observers abreast with the score to the other game of interest, kicking off at the same time in Orchard Park, N.Y.
It’s no secret the streaky Dolphins — of three- and five-game winning streaks followed by equal losing streaks this season — are reeling and now have one final chance to save a season that once looked so promising.
Miami finished November 8-3 and tied with the Bills atop the AFC East, holding the tiebreaker at the time for the division lead. Since, five straight losses: First, back-to-back defeats on the West Coast against the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers; staying on the road, they lost in snowy Buffalo on a last-second field goal; home for the first time in a month, they were defeated by the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Day and lost quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a concussion in the process; finally, a New Year’s Day defeat to the Patriots in Foxborough, Massachusetts with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater exiting with a finger injury.
“To get a win after that shows the type of strength that you’re looking for,” said coach Mike McDaniel of the prospect of rebounding in a regular-season finale. “I think it’d be a win that they’d be proud of, and it’s a win that could transition us to having a longer season and getting another opportunity to play together.
“So it’s the most important game of the season, and when you play those type of games, you need to reverse engineer and say, ‘What’s the desired outcome? Okay, how do we get there?’ And it’s not by worrying about how big a deal it is.”
The Dolphins need to make sure their rookie quarterback and seventh-round pick doesn’t think it’s too big a deal. Skylar Thompson is thrust into the starting role with fellow quarterbacks Tagovailoa and Bridgewater injured. Tagovailoa remains in concussion protocol, set to miss a second straight game. Bridgewater then hurt his pinky finger on his throwing hand last Sunday at Gillette Stadium.
“I can’t say that this is the exact situation that I imagined, but I’m definitely not mad about it,” said Thompson, the Kansas State alum making his second career start in a must-win for his team. “I’ve got a great opportunity here ahead of me that is something I’ve always worked for and dreamed for my whole life. I put a lot of time into this game and to get to this point, and to see it kind of play out this way is very exciting for me.”
Thompson isn’t looking for an over-simplified version of McDaniel’s offense in order to find success Sunday, but like any backup quarterback, his job must simply be to not lose the game for his team.
“I don’t have to be a hero. I’ve just got to be Skylar Thompson,” he said. “That’s what I’m excited to go do, is to go out there, smile, have fun and play the game that I love.”
Helping him do that will be the star wide receiver duo of Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at his disposal. Either one of them can turn short catches into chunk plays — or get open down the field.
Thompson can also benefit from practicing all week as the starter, much more comfortable circumstances than having to enter a game with a starter going down. Hill, the seven-time Pro Bowl selection, has confidence in the rookie based on the week of drills together.
“Skylar had guys flying around catching passes, being deliberate in and out of the huddle,” Hill said. “I’m really looking forward to Sunday and watching him play in this game.”
The three previous times a backup quarterback has been called upon to start for Tagovailoa, he has been unable to finish the game healthy. To that point, the Dolphins are hopeful Bridgewater, who made progress throughout the week in how much he was able to throw with the dislocated pinky finger, can be available in an emergency role behind Thompson. Miami also signed veteran quarterback Mike Glennon to the practice squad.
The protection for the quarterback could be an issue with Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead doubtful to play after not practicing all week with toe, pectoral, knee and hip injuries. With Kendall Lamm also doubtful, it’s likely to mean Greg Little starts at left tackle. Geron Christian was claimed off waivers from the Chiefs this week and practiced with the team Friday as he still did not have his own locker at team facilities.
Some positive injury news for the Dolphins comes in the expectation that cornerback Xavien Howard and outside linebacker Bradley Chubb will be able to suit up against the Jets after both missed last week’s loss at the Patriots — Howard after banging knees in practice last week and Chubb with hand and ankle ailments.
That should provide the defense a boost as it goes against a subpar Jets offense that will turn to 37-year-old Joe Flacco to start after Mike White, the former South Florida high school standout at University School, hurt his ribs in practice. New York, already with guard Alijah Vera-Tucker and tackle Mekhi Becton on injured reserve, also has three other linemen — tackles Duane Brown and George Fant and guard Nate Herbig — out.
If the two results the Dolphins need on Sunday occur, as long as the Chiefs beat the Raiders on Saturday, Miami would travel to Buffalo in the wild card round of the playoffs in a No. 2-vs.-No. 7 matchup. If the Chiefs lose and Miami gets in by way of its own win and the Bills’ win over the Patriots, the Dolphins visit Kansas City next weekend.
There is no word yet on if Tagovailoa would be able to return from concussion protocol next week for a playoff matchup.