Brian Flores shows he is a coach who will stand up for his players in brawl with the Bengals.

Pressure Point: Final 4 weeks true test for feisty Miami Dolphins

As the NFL playoff race approaches critical mass, there’s not much to be learned by combing through the debris of the Miami Dolphins’ ugly win against the Cincinnati Bengals.

It was a game that featured two dustups, including a bench-clearing shove fest, five ejections, 14 penalties totaling 116 yards and multiple injuries for each team.

A thoroughly ugly and interminable affair of football. The outcome was significant for the Dolphins, 19-7, which boosted them to 8-4 for the first time since 2003 and kept them in the thick of the AFC race.

Not to make too much of defeating a downtrodden opponent that hasn’t won on the road since 2018. The Dolphins played down to the Bengals’ level for a half, then put the hammer down in the third quarter.

They did what they needed to position themselves for a meaningful December, which has been a rarity for Miami the past two decades.

The next four weeks will give a truer read on where this Dolphins rebuilding project stands than anything that has transpired so far.

Tough stretch to the playoffs

The gauntlet to the playoffs begins next Sunday at home against the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs. That is followed by a visit from the New England Patriots, who have reawakened from the seeming ashes of their dynasty by winning four of their past five, including a 45-0 thrashing Sunday of the Chargers and that rookie quarterback some Dolfans inexplicably think the Dolphins should have drafted.

The season concludes with visits to Las Vegas against the playoff-contending Raiders and Buffalo for a potential showdown for the AFC East title.

Are these Dolphins, currently holding the sixth of seven playoff spots, ready for the rigors of a genuine playoff race?

Steve Kornacki, MSNBC’s superstar election numbers cruncher, brought his big board to Sunday Night Football for a breakdown of the NFL playoff picture. Kornacki put the Dolphins’ chances of making the playoffs at 51 percent.

But they must navigate a minefield to get there, through those final four games and with several challengers on their tail: 8-4 Colts (currently holding the final playoff spot), 7-5 Raiders, 6-5 Ravens and 6-6 Patriots.

Notably, Kornacki gave the Ravens, now ninth in the race, a 47 percent chance of making the playoffs, virtually the same as Miami’s.

“Baltimore has the easiest stretch run schedule in the league,” Kornacki said. “Miami, meanwhile, they’re playing Kansas City next week, so they’ve got a much tougher schedule.”

Will 10 wins be enough?

Figure the Dolphins can afford to do no less than split the final four games, but even 10 wins is no guarantee of emerging from this crowded field. According to ESPN Stats & Information research, this is the first time since the 1970 NFL-AFL merger that one conference has had as many teams with a winning percentage of .667 or better through Week 13.

If defense is the foundation of championship runs, the Dolphins can point to their No. 2 ranking in average points allowed of 17.7, just behind Pittsburgh’s 17.1.

Except for one stumble on a two-yard out that turned into a 72-yard touchdown, the Dolphins could claim another immaculate day of defense Sunday. They held the Bengals to 30 total yards in the second half, finished with six sacks and two interceptions.

But the premise that defense wins has been knocked off-kilter in this age of highfalutin offense. Putting the kibosh on recent practice-squad graduate QB Brandon Allen didn’t prepare the Dolphins for dealing with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, who will be aiming to reprise their recent success at Hard Rock Stadium earlier this year in Super Bowl 54.

For any chance against Kansas City, Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense must reprise the effort they mustered at Arizona in winning a shootout against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals.

It’s a tall order against the Chiefs, who by the way are allowing only 21.2 points a game.

Tua quiets critics

But that’s why it was incumbent on offensive coordinator Chan Gailey to loosen the reins on Tagovailoa in the second half. Also why the rumblings about benching Tua at halftime were ludicrous, especially those expressed by network analysts who should have a much better grip on the big picture of where these Dolphins are and what they are trying to become.

Can that nonsense be put to rest now that Tua is 4-1 as a starter and has thrown for seven touchdowns with zero interceptions?

As Matt Infante of noted on Twitter, only three rookie quarterbacks in NFL history have won at least four of their first five starts while posting a passer rating of at least 95: Dan Marino, Ben Roethlisberger, Dak Prescott and Tagovailoa.

Yes, Tua was off the mark and out of sync during the first half. But he finished with 296 yards and would have easily recorded his first 300-yard game if Jakeem Grant hadn’t dropped a deep ball delivered in stride.

Tagovailoa is far from a finished product. He is also leading an offense short on playmakers, which will be addressed in the next draft.

Meanwhile, the Dolphins have given themselves a legitimate chance at the playoffs this season even while a work in progress.

These next four weeks will reveal just how much work is still to be done.

But one thing for certain is these Dolphins won’t be a pushover at crunch time as so many of their predecessors have been.

Flores: ‘These are my kids’

That was evident Sunday when coach Brian Flores led the charge at the Bengals’ bench after Grant got flattened for the second time while waiting to field a punt.

“Look, I’m going to stick up for my players,” Flores said. “I’m just going to be honest, these are like my kids.”

Flores lamented that his emotional reaction was receiving more attention than his team’s dominant performance in the second half. But the impact of the coach standing up for his players will serve the team far longer than thumping an inferior opponent.

“It just means a lot. He’s not just a coach out there. If his guy gets hurt, he’s not going to let it go. He stands up for us as a team,” Tagovailoa said. “You got to see, not just him, but other guys going in there trying to defend Jakeem [Grant] and whatnot. But I think it’s a testament — although it happened the way it did, it’s also a testament to how close we are as a team.”

These next four weeks will tell how close these Dolphins are to being the team they aspire to become.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

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