This week’s Deep Dive takes a closer look at two teams that are unexpectedly among the top five on current form. Obviously, the unbeaten Pittsburgh Steelers (nine successive wins) are in fine fettle, as are divisional leaders the New Orleans Saints (six) and Kansas City Chiefs (four), but two other teams have been quietly rising through the ranks in recent weeks, both riding their own winning streaks to reach 6-3.
So snorkels on and flippers at the ready, people: let’s jump in and share in the joy currently being experienced by Dolphins and Raiders fans.
After losing three of their first four games, the Dolphins struck a rich seam of form and are mining it for all they’re worth. Sitting second in the AFC East, Miami are a full two games clear of the hot-and-cold Patriots and only half a game behind the Bills – the two teams they lost to in the first fortnight. Since then, they’ve won six out of seven (only tasting defeat against the Seahawks in mid-September) and triumphed in their last five; that’s the third-longest winning streak in the league and it leaves them with their best nine-game start for nigh-on two decades.
The franchise is looking to overcome years of underachievement and disappointment, with only one winning season to shout about since 2008. They finished 5-11 last time out, in Brian Flores’ first year as Head Coach but, for a team that were (allegedly) #TankingForTua, the turnaround has been impressive. They are playing with purpose and pride, and the rebuild seems well ahead of schedule. Star names may have been shipped out but the new faces are performing admirably. Fins fans must be enjoying the ride for a change.
Last Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium, they won 29-21 over the Los Angeles Chargers, opponents that, in complete contrast to the Dolphins, have lost six of their last seven. The win was the perfect illustration of how Miami’s all-round game is starting to reap rewards.
Does it take Tua to tango?
As I write this on Monday evening, it’s exactly a year since Tua Tagovailoa suffered his season-ending hip injury playing for Alabama. Fast forward to today and the fifth overall pick has just gone 3-0 as an NFL starter, with 5 TDs and 0 INTs. His first start, a 28-17 win against the Rams, was a bit ropey but last week in Arizona, in a dramatic 34-31 victory over the Cardinals, Tua went 20-of-28 for 248 yards, two scores with no picks. And on Sunday just gone, his stat line read 15-of-25 for 169 yards, again with 2 TDs and 0 INTs.
Those numbers aren’t in any way mind-blowing but he’s being quietly efficient and, just as importantly, not giving the ball away. There are flashes of elite-level accuracy but some of Tua’s passes into tight spaces have been a little too close for comfort. He’s not the messiah (not yet anyway) but he’s getting more comfortable by the week.
But it’s not all about Tua, far from it. The winning run started with Ryan Fitzpatrick under centre, with a 43-17 whooping of the 49ers and a 24-0 shutout against the Jets. With the offence ticking over nicely, Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey made sure the QB transition was seamless and painless.
Amen to Ahmed
Even with average QB production, Miami are finding ways to win. As alluded to above, the Dolphins are doing well in all three phases of the game. As well as competent quarterbacking, the offence is also capable on the ground. With Matt Breida injured and veteran Jordan Howard a healthy scratch (before being released a couple of days ago), Myles Gaskin was doing a nice job before sustaining a knee injury.
So rookie Salvon Ahmed was next man up and he now leads the backfield. Praise be! Ahmed rushed a team-high 21 times for 85 yards and his first NFL TD. He should make a decent tag-team with Gaskin when the second-year running back returns.
Don’t sit on defence
The Miami D is also playing its part, with the 20.2 points per game allowed good for fifth-best in the league (and more than 10 points per game better than in 2019). The defence has scored a league-leading 34 points on turnovers since Week 8, including two strip sacks returned for touchdowns, while CB Xavien Howard corralled his fifth interception of the season on Sunday. The team’s 15 takeaways and +5 turnover difference are each only bettered by three teams in the NFL.
And while they are relying on lesser-known players these days, some – like linebacker Andrew van Ginkel – are fast making a name for themselves. Against the Rams, he recovered a Jared Goff fumble and took it 78 yards to the house; this week, he blocked a punt that was recovered on the 1-yard line, gifting Ahmed that score just two minutes into in his first start. (Fast starts are another factor in the Dolphin’s success: they have outscored their opponents 80-31 in the first quarter.)
There’s a third, equally important aspect to the Dolphins’ game so let’s doff our caps to Danny Crossman, who’s in charge of special teams. Among his guys, punt returner Jakeem Grant has excelled at taking clean catches, avoiding tackles and gaining yards, with returns of 18, 19 and 20 yards against the Chargers. And then there’s kicker Jason Sanders, who has been an absolute machine this year. He is now 23 of 23 on extra points and 20 of 21 on field goal attempts, having seen a 47-yarder drift wide to end his 100% record last week… aha, the guy’s human after all.
Building a culture club
It sounds like everyone buys into Brian Flores’ approach, and he’s making a strong case for Coach of the Year when the time comes for end-of-season accolades. His way may not be an all-out fireworks display but the mix of solid defence, effective special teams and ball control on offence seems to be a winning formula.
The Dolphins are also showing resilience and fortitude, replacing players (and coaches) ruled out by COVID-19 protocols with barely a ripple. Guys like Ahmed, van Ginkel and tight end Durham Smythe, who also scored his first TD last week, are stepping in and making this team bigger than the sum of its parts.
They shouldn’t get ahead of themselves but Miami has more wins than their next three opponents (the Broncos, Jets and Bengals) combined, so a 9-3 record in early December looks eminently feasible.
The Chiefs, Patriots, Raiders and Bills will pose a few more questions down the final stretch but with Buffalo’s recent loss to the Cardinals, Miami are very firmly in the hunt for a playoff place, if not a divisional title. They’ll play the Bills again in the final week of the regular season and who knows what may be stake by then.
LAS VEGAS RAIDERS
After half a season at Allegiant Stadium, their new, not-so-humble abode, the Las Vegas Raiders seem to have settled in and started to find some form. Three wins on the bounce, and four in the last five, have lifted them to 6-3 in the AFC West, a full three games clear of the Broncos and Chargers. They now have their sights on current Super Bowl champions Kansas City, only two Ws ahead. The Raiders are bossing their division games so far (3-0) and it’s not all about home field advantage either, as they’re 4-1 on the road.
The Chiefs are actually next up in the Nevada desert so the late Sunday clash will be the acid test for Vegas. Win this one and we may just have a contender on our hands. Let’s not forget, their 2-2 start included a 10-point win over the Saints, and then they slapped 40 points, 490 total yards and a 40-32 win on KC at Arrowhead, ending the Chiefs’ own 13-game winning streak in the process. Quarterback Derek Carr (22-of-31, 347 yards, 3 TDs) outplayed Patrick Mahomes in his own back yard that night.
Of late, the media have been using metaphors that portray the team as bullies, and second-year running back Josh Jacobs as the kid who steals your dinner money at break. Move the Sticks’ Bucky Brooks would probably reference “smash-mouth football”. Safe to say, the Silver and Black play hard, physical, non-nonsense ball.
Is Carr driving this thing?
When the team left Oakland at the end of the 2019 campaign, they signed Marcus Mariota, suggesting their faith in their QB was wavering. Derek Carr is a legitimate top-10 passer and one of the main reasons the Raiders could yet reach the play-offs. His play in clutch moments is particularly notable, and will stand them in good stead as we approach the sharp end of the season: he has a 116.6 passer rating on third downs, 111.1 on the road and 105.9 in the second half of games.
He’s also showed that he can run and that he’s willing to hurl himself headfirst to gain that vital first down. Carr is leading this team with understated proficiency and while some of his stats aren’t staggering – 2,156 yards (17th in the league) and 16 TDs (14th), for example – his overall passer rating of 107.4 and his 69.3% completion rate are both fifth-best in the league.
While no one has more than his eight fumbles (five of which have been lost), crucially, he’s only thrown two interceptions, leaving him third in interception percentage (0.8%), which helps to make balance things out. In short, #4 is doing a fine job.
On Sunday just gone, in their convincing 37-12 win over Denver, the traits the Raiders have relied on in recent weeks were on show again and the ones they’ve been lacking started to emerge. The Raiders passing attack had an off day; Nelson Agholor (5 TDs) dropped a clanger in the end zone, while TE Darren Waller (a career-high 4 TDs) and speedy WR Henry Ruggs III both missed deep balls that might have gone for six. Yet Carr was super-efficient, going 22-of-26 for 259 yards and a Tyrell Williams TD.
But no matter; even with the wideouts and tight ends missing their cues, the Raiders relied on other weapons, like their sledgehammer of a run game. Josh Jacobs (112 yards) and Devontae Booker (81) combined for nearly all the team’s 204 rushing yardage, and notched two touchdowns each.
The Raiders were criticised when HC Jon Gruden traded away star pass-rusher Khalil Mack. But Jacobs, who they got with the first-round pick acquired as part of the deal, is proving his worth. His 182 attempts, 700 yards, 8 TDs and 77.8 yards per game put him second, fourth, fifth and sixth respectively on the league’s rushing stat charts, and a Pro Bowl invitation could well be in the post. With Booker (3 TDs) coming in to wreak havoc in the final quarter of games, they’re double trouble for opposing run-stoppers.
The D starts to click
On the other side of the ball, the defence held the Broncos to just 66 yards on the ground last week. Vegas entered the game with just five takeaways (dead last in the NFL) but they doubled that total in one afternoon, forcing Lock into four interceptions and recovering a fumble. Safety Jeff Heath came up with two picks, including one in the end zone, and Nick Kwiatkoski’s one-hander was a rare treat.
And for a pass rush with just nine sacks prior to the game, the three the Raiders got against Denver was a decent haul. DE Maxx Crosby now has six sacks for the season, by far the Raiders’ best. These are positive developments and if they can keep them going, good things will happen.
Las Vegas may still be a work in progress but at least they are progressing. They’ve proved that they can ‘win ugly’; even when one unit messes something up, another raises their game to overcome that.
The franchise hasn’t won a division title since 2002, the year the (Oakland) Raiders went to Super Bowl XXXVII, and hasn’t reached the play-offs since 2016. But with the Falcons, Jets, Broncos and Chargers still to come in the schedule (all under .500 at the moment), there’s still everything to play for.
So notice has been given: the Raiders are starting to look like a legitimate threat and you ignore them at your peril.
See you at the bike shed at break-time (and bring your lunch money).