As the playoffs loom ever-closer, The 33rd Team is taking a look each week at teams on the playoff bubble. Each week across the rest of the regular season, we’ll identify one team on the playoff bubble whose chances are trending up, and one whose playoff hopes are dwindling.
Trending Up: Miami Dolphins
3 Things to Watch:
Never before has the NFL seen a team have a 7 game losing streak and 7 game winning streak in the same season. One of the main reasons for the dramatic change is the play of the defense that in the last two weeks alone has accounted for 14 sacks. They’ve accounted for 31 total sacks throughout the winning streak, which is the most in the NFL. The defense has ultimately smothered opponents, allowing 11.7 points per game during this stretch after giving up 31 points during the losing streak. During this winning streak, the Dolphins defense has only given up 17 or more points twice, both of which came at the hand of the Jets. When the Dolphins aren’t getting to the QB, they are getting their hands into passing lanes, resulting in 15 batted passes at the line, a league-high mark since Week 9. The late great John Madden once said, “At the end of the game, the team with the most points on the board is going to win.” Could it be that simple? If the Dolphins can find a way to keep the Derrick Henry-less Titans and the rookie QB-led Patriots at bay, the Fins very well could be playoff-bound.
Tua Tagovailoa has been another critical focal point for the turnaround. Earlier this season, with rumors of a trade in place for Deshaun Watson, it appeared that Miami was ready to turn the page on the former No. 5 overall pick of the 2020 draft. Since Week 9, Tagovailoa has been the 17th-ranked QB in passing grade per PFF at 66.4 (min 100 snaps). While that may not appear as anything more than average QB play, Tagovailoa is completing over 74% of his passes and seems to be feeling more comfortable. His efficient playing style, with limited turnovers, has been just enough to get the job done. He has also made a lackluster offensive line appear more than competent, taking only 8 sacks since Week 9, which is 19 less than Bengals QB Joe Burrow during the same stretch.
The final aspect to watch is the continued excellent play of rookie WR Jaylen Waddle. Since Week 9, Waddle has been the 8th-ranked WR in receiving grade per PFF at 88.0 (min 100 snaps). During this stretch, Waddle has turned into a reliable option to move the chains as 30 of his 48 receptions have accounted for first downs. His average depth of target has improved to 8.1 yards versus 6.0 yards in the first 8 weeks of the season. So too has his yards per reception, improving up to 11.0 yards versus 8.6 yards to start the year. The trust and rapport that Waddle has established with Tagovailoa has Dolphins fans very excited about the future. In combination with DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki, the Dolphins have enough firepower to do some damage down the stretch.
Remaining Dolphins Opponents: @ TEN, vs. NE
Trending Down: Los Angeles Chargers
3 Things to Watch:
Health of Derwin James
There is no doubt that the Chargers’ offense has not been the main cause of the team’s problems this season. In fact, the Chargers have been a middle of the pack team as far as turnovers are concerned this year; however, in the Chargers’ losses, they failed to take care of the ball. In Week 16, despite the absence of star running back Austin Ekeler, the Chargers still had enough to take down the Houston Texans. They turned the ball three times with two of those turnovers coming from star QB Justin Herbert. The second-year QB has had some games this season where he has given the ball away to the opposing side. In four out of their seven losses, Herbert has turned the ball over at least two times. There has been only one game this year where Herbert has turned the ball over two times and the Chargers still came out victorious, which was a Week 1 victory over the Washington Football Team. In the Chargers’ first matchup against the Broncos this season, Herbert threw two of his 14 interceptions on the year, resulting in Denver getting more opportunities to score. In a must-win matchup, Herbert has to make smart decisions in order to ensure that his team is not on the outside looking in as the playoff picture gets tighter and tighter.
It has been no secret that the Chargers have had an extremely tough time defending the run this season. In Week 16, the Chargers gave up 189 yards on the ground to a Texans team that is only averaging 84.8 rushing yards per game in 2021, which is dead last in the NFL. On the other hand, the Chargers are now giving up the fourth-highest amount of rushing yards per game in the league at 140.3. No matter who is under center for the Broncos, running the ball is going to be a top priority considering the Chargers have not proven they can stop teams from doing so. Los Angeles will be in for an interesting matchup against the two-headed rushing attack of Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon. The two backs combined for 137 yards and one touchdown on the ground, but with the quarterback play being questionable this year, Denver could look to lean on the run game more in this one to come out with another victory against LA.
Derwin James is an electric player when he is on the field, but he has suffered a multitude of injuries that have derailed him from being as effective as possible. James has only missed two games this year, but one of those games was in Week 16 where his presence was clearly missed. Football is a team game, but James’ impact goes a long way for the Chargers’ defense. Either way, if he is unable to suit up for the Bolts in Week 17, it could be another tough outing for Los Angeles against a team that has already beaten the Chargers handily this year. The Chargers will need all hands on deck for their remaining two games in the hopes that they are able to snag a Wild Card berth, and this includes James. His ability to play man to man against some of the league’s biggest and fastest tight ends on top of his impact in the run game could help the Chargers to secure the wins that they would need to make the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Remaining Chargers Opponents: vs. DEN, @ LV
Written by Brian Friedland and Bryan Filker