The Miami Dolphins (8-4) enter their Week 14 matchup against the Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) coming off the soft section of their schedule. The Dolphins have won seven of their last eight games and now face their stiffest test of the season.
The Dolphins largely hold their playoff destiny in their own hands. Most assume the game against the defending Super Bowl champions is a loss, but if Miami manages a win this week, it will go a long way toward snapping their four-year playoff drought.
Here’s a look at five keys to the Dolphins-Chiefs matchup in Week 14.
Dolphins-Chiefs: Bend, Don’t Break
The Dolphins sport one of the top defensive units in the NFL. Miami allows the second-fewest points-per-game this season (17.7). They’ve allowed the second-fewest points total (212) and have surrendered just 23 points over the last three game. But this week, they matchup against a high-octane offense helmed by former NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs are second in scoring offense (30.8 PPG), first in total offense (427.6 YPG) and passing (314.4 PYPG), and 16th in rushing (113.2 RYPG) with the second-best third-down conversion rate (49.0 percent).
Kansas City will move the ball against the Dolphins. For Miami, it will be a matter of locking down in the Red Zone. The Dolphins Red Zone defense ranks ninth this season, surrendering a touchdown 58.3 percent of the time. Over the last three weeks, though, Miami’s Red Zone D is tops in the league, allowing touchdowns only 12.3 percent of the time.
The Chiefs are going to score, but if Miami can manage to hold them to field goals instead of allowing an avalanche of touchdowns, they’ll be in this game.
Keep the Offense Up-Tempo
The Chiefs strength is clearly on the offense, but that doesn’t mean their defense is bad. Kansas City ranks sixth in scoring (21.2 PPG) and 17th in total defense (358.2). They’ve won their last seven games in a row, but in three of their last four, they’ve surrendered 24 points or more.
What this means for Miami is they should have the opportunity to move the ball and put up points. And if they’re going to do that, they need to continue what started to work last week: up-tempo offense.
Miami went up-tempo in the second half versus the Bengals last week. Their first drive in the third quarter covered 70 yards in less than three minutes. Tua Tagovailoa zeroed in during that drive as well, connecting on all four pass attempts for 71 yards at the faster pace. After a touchdown to Mike Gesicki, the Dolphins came right back on their next drive moving in a similar fashion. All told, Tagovailoa completed 9-of-12 attempts for 137 and a touchdown on those two drives.
Another wrinkle could be the empty backfield looks. During Sunday’s win, 10 of Tagovailoa’s 39 passes were out of the empty package. He completed nine of those for 106 yards.
Dolphins-Chiefs: Pressure from the Front Four
The Dolphins defense has made a name for itself this season with big plays. What’s helped that effort is the pressure Miami pass rushers have put on opposing quarterbacks. The Dolphins rank in the top-10 in both total sacks (31) and quarterback hits (83). That pressure has led to strip sacks, fumbles and interceptions.
That pressure, though, largely comes thanks to a blitz-happy scheme. The Dolphins blitz on 41.1 percent of dropbacks, second-most in the league. They’ve masked their extra rushers in a variety of ways and they’ve sent the house, using a Cover Zero look, many times.
Sending extra rushers at Mahomes, though, hasn’t been a good idea this season. He’s faced a blitz on 104 dropbacks, which is the third-fewest among quarterbacks with at least 11 starts this season. What’s more, Mahomes has connected on 12 touchdowns and put up a 138.8 rating against the blitz, best in the NFL. He’s thrown zero interceptions in those situations.
This means the Dolphins should probably approach pressuring Mahomes with just their front four. Kansas City runs at least three wideouts out there more than 70 percent of the time, which will dictate Nickel or Dime packages from the Dolphins. Miami should probably flood the field with defensive backs in an effort to mitigate Mahomes’ weapons.
This will be easier said than done. The Dolphins defense has secured a takeaway in 18 straight games, the longest current streak in the league. Miami’s 21 takeaways this season rank second in the NFL and it’s been the key element to the Dolphins’ success this season. Xavien Howard leads the league with eight interceptions, and he’s picked off a pass in four straight games.
Kansas City, though, takes care of the football. The Chiefs are tied with Tennessee for the fewest giveaways this season (8) and Mahomes has thrown just two interceptions in 463 passes this season. His 0.4 percent interception rate is lowest in the league.
Mahomes’ had some close calls, but Miami will need a takeaway or two to turn the tide in this one. Setting up Tagovailoa with a short field and swinging the momentum in Miami’s favor will go a long way to earning this win.
Dolphins-Chiefs: Don’t Abandon the Run
The Dolphins offense struggles to gain consistent traction on the ground. Miami’s 96.5 rushing yards-per-game ranks in the bottom third of the league. Their 3.7 yards-per-carry average is worst. But even though it’s been a struggle to run, the Dolphins must maintain some semblance of balance against KC.
Myles Gaskin’s return to the lineup helped last week. The second-year back gained a career-high 141 yards from scrimmage, 90 of those on the ground. A similar 4.3 yards-per-carry average would go a long way to helping Miami move the ball against the Chiefs. Last week, Miami gained 110 yards on 28 carries against the Bengals, including an 11-yard run from rookie Lynn Bowden Jr.
A creative approach to the run game, with jet sweeps featuring Bowden or Jakeem Grant, and outside zone runs, which were successful last week, will only help Tagovailoa. And Kansas City can be run on. Their rushing defense allows 132.4 yards-per-game (27th). Against the Broncos in Week 13, Kansas City allowed 179 rushing yards, including a 65-yard scamper from Melvin Gordon.
Keep the clock running and winning time-of-possession will also help Miami’s defense against Mahomes and the potent Chiefs offense. If the Dolphins can establish run and methodically move the ball, that will limit Mahomes’ opportunities to score.