If you were to ask national analysts in August their thoughts on both the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals starting 3-1 and being division leaders through the first month of the NFL season, you’d probably get laughed out of the room. Yet, here we are.
When you look at these teams, it’s what makes professional football the best of all American sports. The NFL touts parity as one of its best traits as a league, and that is on display with the starts to the season of both teams facing off at Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday.
Miami went to the playoffs in 2016, but stumbled to a 6-10 finish last season. After five straight postseason berths from 2011-2015, the Bengals went a combined 13-18-1 the past two seasons.
To say that September 2018 has been a breath of fresh air for both teams is a massive understatement.
Miami’s path to their nice start has been far different than that of the Bengals. Over the past year, head coach Adam Gase has pushed stars like Jay Ajayi, Ndamukong Suh, Jarvis Landry, Mike Pouncey and others out of the door over the past year or so.
Yet, the Dolphins have risen to the occasion, playing more as a team, rather than a group of me-first guys. The result? Sitting atop the AFC East after the first month of the season.
A big reason for the Dolphins’ early success is the play of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He has been taking care of the football with just three interceptions this season, letting the game come to him a bit more than in years past.
In what initially looks like a scary statistic, Tannehill is 10-2 in his last 12 starts. However, because of injuries he’s accrued, that number dates back all the way to 2016.
The ageless wonder, Frank Gore, has been a nice addition that they’ve coupled with Kenyan Drake in the running game. In the secondary, Xavien Howard and rookie Minkah Fitzpatrick have also combined for four interceptions this year, all adding up to a surprising month for the Dolphins.
These two face the immense task of covering A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd this week. They’ve combined for seven touchdown catches and have emerged as two of Andy Dalton’s favorite targets in 2018.
Some may wonder about the level of wins the Dolphins have achieved this year, though. They had a nice season-opening win over the current AFC South-leading Titans, but have since beaten the Jets and Raiders, who have a combined 2-6 record so far this year.
Then, as predictable as the sun rising in the east, Miami lost last week to a backs-against-the-wall Patriots team. And now, with New England’s win on Thursday night, they are nipping at the Dolphins’ heels.
Gase and Co. definitely need this one at Paul Brown Stadium—both for playoff chances and their reputation.
Cincinnati’s start, on the other hand, has been less methodical than Miami’s equation to success, but far more exciting. Who Dey Nation has had to keep the defibrillator paddles nearby, given the what the 2018 “Cardiac Cats” have put them through.
Teryl Austin’s defense started off hot with five turnovers in the first two games, but haven’t netted any big plays since. His unit is letting up 28 points a game, only to be saved by the offense, which is averaging 31 points per contest.
And, like Miami, murmurs about who they’ve beaten are starting to surface. Atlanta, Indianapolis and Baltimore have a combined record of 5-8. Sure, besting the Ravens on primetime was a nice notch in the belt, but just how good are the Bengals right now?
Regardless, you have to play who’s on your schedule. And, who’s next is a team recently-removed from a playoff berth and gunning for another after a hot start.
Unfortunately, Cincinnati might be employing a very different-looking backfield this week. The exciting duo of Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard have been battling differing knee ailments over the past few weeks, with the latter now seeming to be lost for potentially a month.
This comes on the heels of the team losing another valuable passing option for the year in Tyler Eifert. Dalton has shown both comfortability and grit this year, but he keeps losing some of his favorite outlets.
In his borderline-magical 2015 campaign, Dalton was at his best when all of his options were available. That isn’t and hasn’t been the case this year, but No. 14 has still played very well. He’ll need to continue his high-level of performance with Bernard, Eifert, John Ross and Billy Price not playing this week.
The injuries are a shame because this two-headed monster in the backfield gives opposing defense fits—but they’ve only suited up for two games together this season. Mixon might make his return this week, but the ever-conservative Bengals brain trust could have him sit until Week 6 when the Steelers come to town.
Speaking of Pittsburgh, ironically, that is what scares me about this week. Cincinnati is not only limping a bit right now, but might they also be looking ahead to a clash they’ve been awaiting for almost a year?
But, if this year’s Bengals team has taught us anything, it’s that they seem to be more mentally-tough than previous Marvin Lewis squads. Whether it’s in climbing back for what looked like unlikely wins, or keeping their foot on the throat after getting a big lead, the 2018 Bengals are designed to give headaches to their opposition.
Well, pull out the Advil, Adam. You’re in for a rough game for the second week in a row.
Dolphins 20, Cincinnati 30