Chiefs look for eighth straight win against surging Dolphins in potential playoff preview
The Kansas City Chiefs hit the road once again for the third time in four weeks as they head south to take on the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday afternoon. The Chiefs have wrapped up a playoff berth by clinching the AFC West title and still remain in contention for the top overall seed in the AFC, while the Dolphins sit just a game behind AFC East leader Buffalo — against whom they close the season in Week 17 — but currently would make the playoffs via a wild-card berth if the season were to end today.
Save for a Week 5 home loss to Las Vegas, Kansas City (11-1) has been about as close to unstoppable as possible. The Chiefs have rattled off seven straight wins since falling 40-32 to the Raiders on Oct. 11, the first three of which came with an average margin of victory of nearly 21 points while the next four came by a grand total of just 15. Last week, Kansas City had its first home game in nearly a month and was held to just one touchdown against Denver. But the Chiefs snuck past the Broncos thanks to five Harrison Butker field goals and a defense that intercepted Drew Lock twice while holding the visitors to just six second-half points.
Having won seven of its last eight games after a 1-3 start, Miami (8-4) stays home following a smooth 19-7 win over Cincinnati last week, with Hard Rock Stadium much more friendly to the Dolphins as of late. Miami lost its first two home games of 2020 — 31-28 vs. Buffalo (Sept. 20) and 31-23 vs. Seattle (Oct. 4) — but has come away victorious in each of its last four, including wins over both the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers. Against the Bengals, the Dolphins allowed a first-quarter touchdown pass by Brandon Allen but posted a shutout the rest of the way, with an offensive performance very similar to the Chiefs' against the Broncos. Tua Tagovailoa threw one touchdown to tight end Mike Gesicki, and four field goals by Jason Sanders proved to be the difference as the Bengals suffered their fourth loss in as many weeks.
Kansas City at Miami
Kickoff: Sunday, Dec. 13 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Chiefs -7
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Mahomes reclaim his magic against stingy Dolphins defense?
Kansas City, the NFL's leading passing offense, was slowed but not stopped in its win over Denver last week. Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs stand more than 400 yards ahead of Houston for the league's top passing mark, but the 2019 league MVP was held in check by the Broncos. Mahomes had just one touchdown pass for only the second time this season and he completed 25 of his 40 passes or 62.5 percent, his third-lowest mark.
Miami has been a tough matchup for opposing offenses, especially in recent weeks. The Dolphins are second in the league in Pittsburgh in points allowed (212, just one behind), and have surrendered just three touchdowns in as many weeks, including the Jets mustering just a field goal two weeks ago and Cincinnati tallying a single touchdown last week. In terms of yards allowed, Miami is in the middle of the pack, but total and passing. The Dolphins' bend-don’t-break defense will present an intriguing test for Mahomes — and downfield targets like Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson as well as prolific tight end Travis Kelce — to rebound and get back on track after a relatively quiet performance this past Sunday night.
2. Will Miami's offense find a rhythm?
Averaging a little more than 17 points per game in their last three, the Dolphins have more than relied on their defense to get them through a couple of close wins but couldn't muster enough offense to get past Denver. Miami ranks squarely in the middle of the NFL in scoring with 25.3 points per game, but is lower in the rankings in yards (319.8 per game, 28th).
A more permanent switch to Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback should aid in the effort to gain consistency, as the skill position players and offensive line acclimate to the rookie. Though he notched just the one touchdown pass to Gesicki against Cincinnati, Tagovailoa amassed his highest passing total (296 yards). Add that to Myles Gaskin netting 90 rushing yards on 21 carries to help the run game break out of a mini-slump — as the Dolphins had totaled 160 yards on 42 carries (3.8 ypc) in their two previous games — and this offense might be sniffing some momentum in the final weeks of the regular season.
3. Late-game difference-maker: special teams?
Both of these teams are quite familiar with close games ... too familiar, really. Four of Miami's last five games have been decided by 12 or fewer points, with six of Kansas City's last eight decided by single digits and four straight by six points or fewer. In those instances, even when it isn't necessarily the difference in the game, a field goal — made or missed — can often be a key factor in how teams approach the possible late-game scenarios.
That's where a reliable kicking game can make a big difference, to which both Kansas City and Miami can lay claim. Miami's Jason Sanders is tied for the third-most field goal attempts (29) this season, with Butker (24) not far behind. Both have been near-perfect in 2020, with Sanders making all but one of his and Butker converting all but two with a long of 56 and 58 yards, respectively. Should the final few minutes present a kick-or-go-for-it decision for Brian Flores or Andy Reid, both head coaches can feel confident in their kickers to come through in the clutch.
Kansas City and Miami have their sights set on the postseason with just a few weeks left to secure their fate, but an important test looms this week for both teams. Look for the Chiefs to start fast and try to grab some early momentum while the Dolphins would be much more content with a slower, lower-scoring affair.
Prediction: Chiefs 27, Dolphins 20
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.