The Miami Dolphins beat the Houston Texans on Sunday to improve their record to 8-3. They are tied for first in the AFC East with the Buffalo Bills and own the tiebreaker. However, now comes the most challenging part of the Dolphins’ schedule a 3-game road trip starting this Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers. Some experts say the Dolphins are contenders, even going as far as saying the team to beat in the AFC and a team nobody wants to play. I’m not ready to say the Dolphins are contenders or the team to beat in the AFC. It’s probably because the last two decades, the Dolphins have been irrelevant, and every time things look to be going in the right direction, they disappoint me only to crash and burn, so how is this team different? 

The obvious answer is the offense—the improved play of quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the big play receivers in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The Dolphins have scored 30 points or more in 4 straight games. Wait, did I just say that? The Dolphins’ offense over the past two decades has been average at best, even with the rule changes that favor the offense nowadays. Hill and Waddle are a threat anytime they touch the ball. The Dolphins also have improved their play from the offensive line as the season has progressed. The offense has answered the call this season when needed. Whether down multiple scores against the Baltimore Ravens or needing a big play against the Buffalo Bills to put them over the top on the scoreboard, the offense came up with the plays to win. 

The Dolphins also had injuries that contributed to a 3-game losing streak, which is my biggest concern going into Sunday’s game against the 49ers. The Dolphins lost Terron Armstead to an injury, and it doesn’t look like he is going to play not only this week, but possibly this road trip. Now, it’s good news Armstead isn’t lost for the season, but this offensive line isn’t good when he’s not in the lineup. When he left Sunday’s game against the Texans, Tagovailoa was taking some hits, and if the Dolphins weren’t up 30-0, he probably stays in the game and takes more hits and possibly gets injured. Tagovailoa missed three games with a concussion and going up against a tough 49ers defense; it makes me wonder if he could last in this game and knock him out. This offense thrives when he is playing, as evidenced by the two full games he missed. Tagovailoa has durability issues, and it could be put to the test without Armstead. 

One criticism about the Dolphins’ 4 games scoring 30 points or more is they have played some bad defenses. Let’s be real the Chicago Bears, Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns, and Houston Texans stink on defense. The Dolphins have the talent at the skill positions to make plays against anybody, but how is their offensive line going to do against a tough 49ers defense led by Nick Bosa and a Chargers defense with pass rushers Kahil Mack and potentially Joey Bosa. When the Dolphins didn’t have Armstead against the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings, they looked lost and were giving up pressures left and right. The coaching staff will have its work cut out for them in overcoming the Armstead loss. 

The Dolphins’ defense has started to play better, especially with the addition of Bradley Chubb and Xavien Howard. He looks to be healthy from his groin injury that plagued him before the bye week. However, one criticism about the DDolphins’defense has been not playing well against a better offense with better quarterbacks. The 49ers are a decent offense, but they aren’t an elite offense or have a franchise quarterback. The defense will get tested against the Los Angeles Chargers and the Bills. The Chargers have Justin Herbert, and he can light it up with the best of them when his game is on and when he has his receivers. It’s one reason people like the Chargers to make the playoffs and potentially contend, but they are a Jekyll and Hyde team. Having said that, their offense will give the Dolphins a good test, especially in the secondary, if the Dolphins don’t generate a pass rush. Josh Allen has always played well against the Dolphins and basically owns them, but last time he made critical mistakes and underthrew an open receiver in the end zone that could have won the game in week 3. That game against the Bills will be in Buffalo in December, where you don’t know what the weather will be or the wind for that matter, and the fact is the Dolphins haven’t won in Buffalo since 2016, and it’s a tough place to win this time of the year. 

As a fan, I’m very excited right now to be a fan because the Dolphins have put themselves in a position to play meaningful games in December. They are in the playoff hunt, and every game matters this time of year, but this road could potentially derail their season if they don’t play well. I’ve been happy with the team’s progress this year under head coach Mike McDaniel, especially with his work with Tagovailoa. McDaniel has revitalized his career, as evidenced by his play. He has provided a structure for this offense that frankly has been lacking since the Dan Marino days. However, the stretch will be significant for Tagovailoa, especially if he wants to cement his status as the franchise quarterback moving forward. Quarterbacks are judged by winning and guiding their teams into the playoffs and, of course, winning the Super Bowl. Tagovailoa hasn’t led the teams to the playoffs, and right now, they are almost a lock to get, but he is going to have to play like he has since coming back from his concussion, and if he can, the sky is the limit for this team. Tagovailoa has to lead this team during this 3-game stretch, and it will go a long way in if this team is a contender or not. 

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