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Dolphins Clinch Playoff Berth with Big Question Marks as Steelers, Patriots Miss Out

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksFeatured Columnist IVJanuary 9, 2023

MIAMI GARDENS, FL - JANUARY 08: Miami Dolphins quarterback Skylar Thompson (19) makes a pass attempt during the game between the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, January 8, 2023 at Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla. (Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Heading into Week 18, most of the AFC playoff picture had come into focus. However, one slot remained up for grabs—the third and final wild-card spot.

The situation was this—if the New England Patriots defeated the Buffalo Bills, the Pats were in. If the Patriots lost and the Miami Dolphins got past the New York Jets, then the No. 7 seed in the AFC belonged to Miami. And if the Patriots and Dolphins both lost and the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Cleveland Browns, then the Steelers would claim that final playoff spot.

We got as far as the second part of that scenario. The Patriots fell in sloppy fashion in Buffalo, and the Steelers were able to give head coach Mike Tomlin a 16th straight non-losing season with a win over the Browns. But that victory was rendered moot by Miami's win over the Jets. It will be the Dolphins who travel to Buffalo to face the Bills in the AFC Wild Card Round.

However, while the Dolphins have to be pleased to be in the postseason for just the third time since 2001, scoring just 11 points does not inspire a ton of confidence that Miami's trip to the playoffs will be a long one.

Injuries at quarterback played a major part in the five-game skid that nearly knocked the Dolphins from the postseason. And if that situation doesn't quickly improve, next week's tilt with the AFC East champions has the makings of a blowout.

For the Patriots, the offseason will be about what could have been. New England's offense has been a mess most of the season, but just as was the case Sunday in Buffalo, an excellent defense kept the team in games. But that defense wasn't enough to overcome turnovers and atrocious special teams play (the Patriots allowed a pair of kick-return touchdowns).

As Frank Schwab wrote for Yahoo Sports, New England heads into 2023 a so-so team without a clear path to marked improvement.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 08: Mac Jones #10 of the New England Patriots warms up prior to a game against the Buffalo Bills at Highmark Stadium on January 08, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images

"The Patriots don't know if they have a quarterback answer after a down season from [Mac] Jones, which included calls for him to get benched for Bailey Zappe," he said. "They won't pick high enough to fix everything in the 2023 draft. The roster has significant holes, and the coaching staff needs to be evaluated, but who knows if Belichick can make an honest assessment after making a mistake everyone saw coming with his offensive staff last offseason. It's going to be a long, and critical, offseason for New England. This might be who the Patriots are for a while. Mediocrity is a tough place to be in the NFL. And the Patriots are stuck in it."

For the Steelers, missing the playoffs has to be disappointing. But there's reason for optimism in the Steel City. Quarterback Kenny Pickett improved as his first season went on. After a 2-6 start, the Steelers won seven of nine in the second half—including four straight to close out the season.

This isn't to say that there aren't areas where the Steelers need to improve. The offensive line needs work, entering Week 18 ranked 16th in the league by Pro Football Focus. On defense, the cornerback and inside linebacker positions need to be upgraded. But with a decent salary-cap situation and an extra top-35 pick compliments of the Chase Claypool trade, the Steelers head into 2023 with a measure of optimism.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 08:   Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) points to a flag on the field during the game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cleveland Browns at Acrisure Stadium on January 8, 2023 in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

On the other hand, the Dolphins enter 2023 a playoff team—one that is potentially in a heap of trouble.

It admittedly came against one of the league's better defenses, but rookie Skylar Thompson didn't play especially well Sunday. Thompson at least avoided turning the ball over, but he averaged under five yards an attempt and barely cleared 150 passing yards.

While speaking to reporters after the game, Thompson freely admitted that he was trying less to win the game than he was not to lose it.

"Nobody was telling me that I had to be a hero," Thompson said. "It may not have been pretty, but we got the job done."

Against a Jets team that was itself starting Joe Flacco under center, that was enough. But to say that there's a difference between facing a Flacco-led Jets offense that entered Week 18 ranked 24th in total offense and taking on Josh Allen and Buffalo's third-ranked scoring offense is an understatement.

The Dolphins need all hands on deck. And as head coach Mike McDaniel told reporters after the win over the Jets, there's no telling if starter Tua Tagovailoa will be medically cleared to take the field for the first time since Week 16.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) walks off the field after an NFL football game against the Green Bay Packers, Sunday, Dec. 25, 2022, in Miami Gardens, Fla. (AP Photo/Jim Rassol)
AP Photo/Jim Rassol

"We'll take it day by day," McDaniel said. "And I will not think about any game—whether this year or next year—until he's fully ready. And that will require medical clearance."

The Miami offense is a completely different animal with Tagovailoa under center. The third-year pro is averaging over 270 passing yards a game, has 25 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions and a passer rating of 105.5.

Mind you, with Tagovailoa under center, the Dolphins beat the Bills 21-19 back in Week 3. The Bills got revenge with a 32-29 win in Week 15, but even then, Tagovailoa threw two touchdown passes and posted a passer rating of 104.0.

It's not just that Tagovailoa is hurt, either. Backup Teddy Bridgewater is believed to have a broken bone in his right hand suffered in Miami's first meeting this season with the Patriots, putting his status for next week's postseason game in jeopardy as well.

As if the quarterback issues weren't enough, star wide receiver Tyreek Hill also missed a chunk of Sunday's game with an ankle issue. Hill was able to return to the game, but with Thompson under center, it didn't really matter—against the Jets, Hill and Jaylen Waddle combined for seven catches and 67 yards.

Therein lies the rub. The Dolphins aren't a team that rely on its defense—Miami entered Week 18 19th in the league in total defense and 24th in the NFL in scoring defense. This is a team that succeeds with explosive offense. With vertical passes. With fireworks.

And with Skylar Thompson under center, there just aren't any.