Sunday's matchup between the Miami Dolphins and the Tennessee Titans has major playoff implications in the AFC.
The Dolphins (8-7) are in third place in the AFC East, but thanks to the expanded playoff format, they find themselves sitting in the AFC's seventh and final seed. Miami has seemingly come out of nowhere, winning seven straight games after dropping seven consecutive contests starting in Week 2. Despite the hot streak, the Dolphins leave a lot to be desired in order to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, especially with a ho-hum offense that ranks 21st in scoring at 20.3 points per game.
In spite of their middling offensive output as of late, the Titans (10-5) are still sitting pretty in the AFC playoff picture. They own the AFC's No. 2 overall seed, lead the Colts by a game in the AFC South, and hold the division tiebreaker against Indy as well. And despite losing three of their last five, the Titans can lock up another AFC South title with a win on Sunday against Miami. With a Chiefs loss, they can move into possession of the conference's lone bye as well. But before Tennessee hangs another division banner in Nissan Stadium, it needs to get its own decent-at-best offense kicked into high gear before the postseason starts.
Miami (8-7) at Tennessee (10-5)
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 2 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Titans -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Brown's big comeback
The biggest issue facing the Titans' offense as of late has been their health issues. The loss of Derrick Henry has been detrimental, as the Titans have averaged just 18.5 points per game in the two months since his injury. But Tennessee has also desperately missed their best pass catcher in receiver A.J. Brown.
Brown was activated from injured reserve last week against the 49ers after suffering a chest injury in Week 11 against Houston. He instantly made an impact in his return, making a career-high 11 catches for 145 yards and a score, giving the Titans a real weapon in the passing game for the first time in a month. Most importantly, eight of the Titans' 16 first-downs came from Brown receptions.
No one was happier to see Brown back in the lineup than Ryan Tannehill. Sixteen of Tannehill's 29 pass attempts and 11 of his 22 completions all went Brown's way. With Henry still out and Julio Jones' status up-in-the-air (COVID-19), Tannehill is sure to target Brown at least a dozen times against the Dolphins.
But Tannehill needs to be diligent. This is a Dolphins pass defense that has been tough all season long, ranking sixth in passer rating allowed (83.7) and 10th in yards allowed per attempt (6.9). Tannehill may be forced into his second reads more than he likes as Miami's lockdown corner, Xavien Howard, will be tasked with shadowing Brown. Howard is one of the few corners in the league who can match Brown's physicality off the line and keep with him in the later steps of his routes. Howard is turning in another stellar year with four interceptions and 15 passes defended, as well as a sterling 76.6 passer rating, 52.9 percent completion rate, and 6.4 yards per target allowed.
2. Time for a Tua Takeover?
If the Dolphins want to be taken seriously as a playoff contender, Tagovailoa needs to prove that he is more than just a game manager.
There is absolutely no denying that Tagovailoa has been efficient this season, especially compared to last year's strenuous rookie campaign. He ranks first in the NFL with a 70.1 percent completion rate, second in accuracy rating (8.0), and fourth in true completion percentage (74.2 percent), while his 2.5-second snap-to-throw time trails only Ben Roethlisberger and Tom Brady. That's mighty fine company.
Those accuracy and efficiency numbers are great but don't tell the full story. Head coach Brian Flores and his staff have done a wonderful job designing Miami's offense to fit Tua's strength of accuracy, by getting the ball out of his hands quickly and not taking unnecessary risks.
When Tua gets rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds, he's posted a 99.5 rating, 10 touchdowns, and only three interceptions and seven sacks in 229 attempts. That's very, very good. But when he hangs on to the ball for more than 2.5 seconds, those numbers are much different — an 81.4 rating, five touchdowns, six picks, and eight sacks in just 99 attempts. Not so good.
Simply put, Flores knows the best chance for his team to win is to not allow Tua to hurt them by taking too many chances downfield. And for the last seven games, it's worked for Miami, albeit mostly against teams with losing records. In Monday night's win against the Saints, 14 of Tua's 26 attempts were within five yards of or behind the line of scrimmage, including a touchdown push-pass to Jaylen Waddle.
Tua ranks 31st in air yards per pass (6.9), 30th in passes of 20-plus yards (24), 27th in passing yards (2,339) and completed air yards (1,300), and 25th in touchdowns passes (15). In fact, eight quarterbacks have twice as many touchdown throws as Tua does this season. Those numbers aren't necessarily an indictment against Tua as much as it's just part of the Dolphins' offensive concepts.
But there will come a point in which Tua will have to go out and win a must-have game for the Fins by taking chances and throwing more than seven yards at a time. That game just might be this coming Sunday afternoon against the Titans.
3. Protecting Tannehill
Week after week, I say the same thing — the Titans' have to keep Tannehill upright. And week after week, Tannehill is helped off the turf by the same offensive linemen that allow him to get blasted repeatedly by oncoming defenders. The Titans' 45 sacks allowed are the fourth-most in the league this season.
But this week, it's even more imperative for the Titans to keep their signal-caller on his feet. With the omicron variant seemingly infecting every NFL locker room this week, the Titans' offensive line was hit especially hard, as starting left tackle Taylor Lewan and starting right guard Nate Davis were added to the Reserve/COVID-19 list on Tuesday.
Now, the good news for the Titans is that the NFL — and the CDC — has shortened the quarantine requirements for COVID-positive players from 10 days to five, regardless of vaccination status. That means Lewan and Davis could be eligible to return in time for Sunday should they be asymptomatic.
Whether or not Lewan and Davis are in the lineup, the Tennessee front line will still have its hands full with the Miami front seven. The Dolphins' 45 sacks are the most in the league. Miami's goal will be to badger Tannehill on every dropback and from every angle, even the secondary with safeties Brandon Jones and Jevon Howard. The Dolphins' 29.1 percent pressure rate is the highest in the NFL, and their 39.2 blitz rate is second.
While their win-loss records are obviously different, the Titans and Dolphins are actually similar teams. Both have underwhelming offenses led by non-threatening(ish) quarterbacks with no running game to speak of, and each relies on their big-play defenses to keep the opposition under 30 points. If Tua can keep the chains moving, the clock churning, and the ball out of the defense's hands, I like the Dolphins on the road against a roster-limited Titans.
Prediction: Dolphins 20, Titans 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.