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Miami Dolphins vs. Cincinnati Bengals Prediction: AFC's Lone Undefeated Team Takes on the Defending Champs on TNF

Former SEC foes Tua Tagovailoa, Joe Burrow to face off in the NFL for the first time.

If anyone expected an AFC team to start 3-0 during the 2022 NFL season, it would be the defending champions of the conference, quarterback Joe Burrow and his Cincinnati Bengals. Instead, it’s the Miami Dolphins remaining as the last team standing, seeking their fourth straight win and geared up to play the 1-2 Bengals on the road as "Thursday Night Football" kicks off Week 4.

Related: Top 5 Games for NFL's Week 4 Schedule

Miami has experienced early success on the back of first-year head coach Mike McDaniel's offensive scheme. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has flourished, doing just enough despite a concussion scare midway through Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills to lead his team to a surprise 21-19 upset. Three weeks into the year, he leads the AFC with 9.2 yards per pass attempt while his 117.8 passer rating ranks second to Lamar Jackson.

Burrow and the Bengals, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found on top of the leaderboard. Two tough losses to start the year by a total of six points left them stumbling out of the blocks before a 27-12 thumping of the Jets in Week 3 righted the ship. A retooled offensive line has been underwhelming, allowing Burrow to be sacked an AFC-high 15 times while his top target, Ja'Marr Chase, has been limited to 83 yards total in the last two games.

The Dolphins, now with a de facto two-game lead on the Bills, could make a statement by posting back-to-back wins against expected AFC Super Bowl contenders. The Bengals would enter the danger zone with a loss by falling to 1-3, losing a crucial tiebreaker with Miami in what's expected to be a crowded field vying for wild card playoff spots.

It's one of the biggest games yet of this still-early 2022 NFL season. Can the Dolphins continue their surprising forward momentum?

Thursday Night Football: Miami (3-0) at Cincinnati (1-2)

Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 29 at 8:15 p.m. ET
TV: Amazon Prime Video (available on TV in local markets)
Live Stream: fuboTV (only available in Cincinnati and Miami markets)
Spread: Bengals -3.5
Tickets: As low as $198 on*

Three Things To Watch

1. How healthy is Tua?
Tagovailoa's hard hit against the turf during the Bills game didn't stop him from returning to start the second half. It also has opened up an NFLPA investigation into whether concussion protocol was handled properly after Tagovailoa was clearly disoriented from that initial blow just before halftime.

McDaniel was adamant the team would not have moved forward putting Tagovailoa back in if "there were any sort of red flags." That said, it's worth a look at how the quarterback was used during the second half: 5-for-8 for just 110 yards, 77 of which came in just two fourth-quarter plays.

Those deep throws — both to wide receiver Jaylen Waddle — showed Tua had at least some awareness of his surroundings. But if all is well in Dolphins land, why did McDaniel not initially clear his starting quarterback for Thursday's contest? Tua was listed as a DNP on Monday before clearing up he's planning to play, mentioning Tuesday he's "doing everything I can" to heal from ankle and back injuries — not head trauma.

If Tua can't go, Teddy Bridgewater steps in as one of the league's most capable backup quarterbacks. Either way, how the Dolphins utilize the position plays a huge factor for Thursday night, especially since their run game continues to struggle. Averaging just 64 yards on the ground through three weeks, ranked 31st out of 32 NFL teams, no Dolphins running back on the roster has gained more than 51 in a single game.

Add in the Bengals' eighth-ranked rushing defense, and it's clear the Dolphins will look to beat them through the air. For the record, Bridgewater struggled against the Bengals last December, throwing for just 98 yards when he was the Denver Broncos starter. Will the raw speed of Waddle and fellow receiver Tyreek Hill be enough no matter who starts?

2. Can Joe Burrow find his way through the Dolphins' defense?Burrow can take a lesson from fellow AFC North quarterback Lamar Jackson on how to handle the Dolphins. Baltimore was unstoppable in Week 2 with Jackson putting up 318 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in the air while adding a fourth touchdown on the ground. The Ravens lost in spite of their offense – not because of it.

The Dolphins' defense, ranked 31st overall in total yards, struggled last week with another AFC premier quarterback. Josh Allen racked up a season-high 400 yards on 63 attempts, completing his first 11 consecutive passes. But the D also forced Allen to fumble on the second drive, a turnover that led to seven crucial points and proved the difference in the game. That takeaway gave them the cushion needed when the Buffalo offense was wearing Miami down in the second half.

That said, the Dolphins are expected to be tired on Thursday after the defensive unit was on the field for a whopping 40 minutes and 40 seconds. Can Burrow get in a rhythm early and keep them on their heels?

"We called a better game," Burrow said about the different mindset his team had against the Jets. "And we weren't behind in the first half."

Expect the Bengals to come out aggressive despite some key offensive players nursing injuries: running back Joe Mixon (ankle) and tight end Hayden Hurst (groin) were limited in practice. Both are expected to play.

3. Who cleans up their act on special teams?
The Dolphins nearly cost themselves the game Sunday with a "butt punt" that drew comparisons to Mark Sanchez’s infamous mishap with the Jets on Thanksgiving Day 2012. When Thomas Morstead hit a blocker with the football, the resulting safety out of the end zone gave the Bills a chance to drive into field goal range late in the fourth quarter. Morstead’s net of 39.5 yards per punt is fourth worst among NFL punters.

On the Bengals side, it's the kicking game they're worried about. Evan McPherson has somewhat recovered from a nightmare start, misses on both an extra point and a field goal that cost his team a potential opening week victory against the Steelers. But McPherson tacked on another missed field goal last week, a 41-yarder, putting a dent in his superhuman reputation after last year's impeccable playoff performance as a rookie.

The last thing you want to do if you're the Dolphins is give a quarterback like Burrow better field position. Can McPherson and his extended range ensure the Bengals make the most of the opportunity?

Final Analysis

The Dolphins have been so impressive on both sides of the ball. But a short week will leave them tired against a Bengals team starting to find their footing. There are no real assurances that Tua is completely healthy while the Dolphins' defense continues to bend against top-tier quarterbacks.

Cincinnati needs this game more. Expect them to take care of business at home and leave every team in the AFC with at least one loss just four weeks into 2022.

Prediction: Bengals 27, Dolphins 20

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

*Price as of publication.