Tua Tagovailoa and Kyler Murray will face off in a battle of 2018 Heisman Trophy finalists
Although they may not be household names yet, perhaps the most intriguing matchup of Week 9 for the future of the NFL will come Sunday afternoon when the Miami Dolphins face off against the Arizona Cardinals.
And it all starts under center — or, perhaps, in shotgun — when Kyler Murray and Tua Tagovailoa meet just two years after they shattered college football passing records in a historic Heisman Trophy battle.
Tagovailoa will only be making his second NFL start after taking over for Ryan Fitzpatrick heading into the team's bye week. The Dolphins dismantled the Rams, 28-17, although that was mostly thanks to their dominant defense. Miami would like to see a lot more than 93 yards out of their rookie southpaw, but they didn't need him to do much, and he stuck to the gameplan without a turnover.
Murray, meanwhile, has been lighting up the league with massive yardage totals and only recently has been able to translate that into wins. He's up to 263.9 passing yards and another 62.4 rushing yards per game this season and is one of six players to have totaled at least 20 touchdowns. With some key additions on offense, he's been able to lead the league's No. 1 total offense to a 5-2 record.
This may be the first of many big games between future Pro Bowl quarterbacks, but for now, it remains a cross-conference game for playoff positioning. Can the Cardinals keep up with the Seahawks for the NFC West title and No. 1 NFC seed? Or will the Dolphins pick up a key road win to extend a three-game winning streak and propel themselves into the AFC playoff picture?
Miami at Arizona
Kickoff: Sunday, Nov. 8 at 4:25 p.m. ET
Spread: Cardinals -5
Three Things to Watch
1. What will the Dolphins get when they ask more of Tua?
It's easy to notch your first NFL win when your defense and special teams spot you a pair of second-quarter touchdowns, but Miami won't complain about last week's win. Sure, the rookie southpaw only averaged 4.2 yards per pass attempt, but they didn't put much on his plate.
With a big lead, the Dolphins only gave Tagovailoa 11 second-half dropbacks, and when they did, it was mostly limited to safe plays like screens and quick passes to prevent the dominant Rams front from hitting him too much. Unless they run out to another big lead again, that's going to change this weekend.
Tagovailoa has the potential to be up to the task. He had plenty of welcome-to-the-NFL moments last Sunday — to state the obvious, pro players are far better than even the best SEC defenses — but it's no exaggeration to say that the former Alabama star was the best college football player we've ever seen. His career 10.9 ypa is a record — check out the only other player in double digits — and the gap between his passer rating (199.4) and second-place Murray (181.3) is greater than the gap between Murray and 21st-ranked Jameis Winston.
The Dolphins have an easier assignment this week against a beatable Cardinals secondary, and DeVante Parker should be healthier after battling groin and ankle injuries. Perhaps one goal for the day will be finding chemistry with one of the big three pass catchers — Parker, Preston Williams, and tight end Mike Gesicki — since he didn't complete more than two passes to any teammate last week.
2. Will Miami be the latest team to slow down Kyler?
Murray has been on an absolute roller-coaster ride the last four weeks, alternating between games of less than 200 passing yards and games with more than 350 yards. The good news is that he's seemed to have dialed down the turnovers, with just two in the last four games after throwing five picks through Week 3.
The Cardinals now have enough pieces that they don't need a great performance from him to win, but they still can't withstand his poor showings against the Lions (three interceptions) and Panthers (133 yards, 4.3 ypa). And given what the Dolphins have shown defensively lately, this could be another hard game for the Cards.
With the additions of Byron Jones, Shaq Lawson, Kyle Van Noy, and rookie Noah Igbinoghene, Miami has been able to give some tools for head coach Brian Flores to use. He's quickly shown that he is one of the brightest defensive minds in the game and potentially the best of Bill Belichick's disciples. The Dolphins have held three teams under 200 passing yards already this year, rank fourth in passer rating allowed (81.7), and sixth in completion rate allowed (61.1 percent).
3. Can either team generate a rushing attack without their primary back?
Much of the attention will be on the quarterbacks this week as well because both teams are missing their starting running backs. Arizona's Kenyan Drake did not practice this week because of an ankle injury, while Miami's Myles Gaskin was put on injured reserve on Thursday because of an MCL injury. He will miss at least the next three games.
Drake has made himself into a workhorse back for Arizona in the 15 games since the Dolphins traded him west (1,155 yards, 12 touchdowns, 4.8 ypc). However, the Cardinals have the No. 2-ranked rushing offense in large part because of Murray, who has used his legs to tack on a league-best 6.7 ypc. They should have capable replacements in Chase Edmonds (176 yards on 29 carries) and rookie Eno Benjamin, who has yet to appear after starring at nearby Arizona State.
Gaskin has been a major surprise for the Dolphins after the team brought in Matt Breida, Jordan Howard, and Lynn Bowden Jr. All four of the backs have struggled, with Gaskin leading the pack with 3.9 yards per carry, so if Breida or Howard don't somewhat resemble their old forms with the 49ers and Bears, that will put even more pressure on Tagovailoa. And there's reason to be pessimistic about that since the Dolphins' offensive line ranks 30th in the NFL with just 3.82 adjusted line yards, although the Cardinals' defense is giving up 4.7 yards per rushing attempt, seventh-worst in the NFL.
All the focus will be on the two quarterbacks, but this game will probably come down to which defense shows up. Brian Flores absolutely had Sean McVay's number last week, just like he did in Super Bowl LIII, and the pressure should shift to Kliff Kingsbury's Air Raid to out-scheme this up-and-coming Dolphins team.
The Cardinals have the biggest names in this matchup in DeAndre Hopkins and Kyler Murray, but I like Byron Jones and this sneaky-good secondary to put up a shocker on the road with a cautious offense that doesn't make many mistakes. With four straight wins, the Dolphins' rebuild may be quickly over.
Prediction: Dolphins 26, Cardinals 24
(Tua Tagovailoa photo courtesy of miamidolphins.com)