The 3-0 Miami Dolphins are in prime time for the first time this season and are in sole possession of first place in the AFC East following their massive, thrilling victory over the Bills in Week 3. They’ve taken down all comers so far, beating Bill Belichick’s Patriots, John Harbaugh’s Ravens and Buffalo, one of this year’s Super Bowl favorites.
Thursday night’s game against the Super Bowl runner-up Bengals is the next stiff challenge. Cincinnati got back on track in Week 3 with a stronger defensive effort (four takeaways) in beating the Jets, running its record to 1-2 after suffering narrow losses the first two weeks of the season.
This game could pit former SEC combatants Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa, who faced off twice in college, with each QB winning on the other one’s home field. This game is in Burrow’s backyard at Paycor Stadium in Cincinnati, where the Bengals strangely have won only three of their past eight regular-season games. But Tagovailoa’s status remains up in the air after he suffered back and ankle injuries Sunday vs. Buffalo.
If not for the Dolphins, the Bengals might not have Burrow. In the 2019 meeting between the teams, the Bengals almost staged an epic comeback in Miami -- down 23 midway through the fourth quarter -- that nearly cost them a chance to draft Burrow before the “Tank for Tua” Dolphins won in overtime. Nine years ago these teams also met in a wild Thursday night game that ended with a walk-off safety in a Dolphins OT win.
This will be a fun coaching matchup, too. Miami’s Mike McDaniel and Cincinnati’s Zac Taylor, two bright members of the NFL’s coaching brat pack, each of whom will turn 40 following the season. McDaniel is trying to become the first Dolphins coach since Don Shula to start a season 4-0.
Here are four things to watch for when the Dolphins visit the Bengals on Thursday night on Prime Video:
- Will Tua be able to go? Tagovailoa, who is listed as questionable, said the plan is to play Thursday following his back and ankle injuries suffered Sunday. The final decision might not come until hours before kickoff, which puts backup Teddy Bridgewater on ready alert. Right now, Tagovailoa’s back is the bigger concern than the ankle. Tagovailoa said it limited his ability to throw the ball effectively in the second half against the Bills, although he was 5 of 8 passing for 110 yards after returning from the injury. The Bengals' pass rush has been hot and cold so far, but Trey Hendrickson was a madman against the Jets with 2.5 sacks, four QB hits and two forced fumbles en route to AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors. He’ll likely be going up against his former Saints teammate, Dolphins left tackle Terron Armstead. Armstead (toe), who is also listed as questionable, is tasked with protecting Tagovailoa’s frontside -- or Bridgewater’s backside.
- The Bengals offense hopes it's back on track. After two games, Cincy turned the ball over five times and struggled to generate big pass plays downfield. The two-deep defenses of the Steelers and Cowboys frustrated the Bengals, who scored only three TDs in seven red-zone trips and had only four explosive pass plays. Sunday’s win over the Jets saw a Bengals offense that looked more like the barnstorming unit that reached Super Bowl LVI. The Bengals have five pass catchers with 10 or more receptions through three games, but it’s Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins the Dolphins must worry most about. The Bengals' 15 sacks allowed are an abomination, and though the pass protection was marginally better against the Jets, Burrow was still sacked twice and hit nine times. He also could be without OT La’el Collins (back), who is questionable, in this one. The Dolphins' pass rush has been a bit blitz-dependent to supply pressure, but new addition Melvin Ingram has given the group a lift. That said, Miami’s defense had to gut out 92 snaps on Sunday (50 in the second half) in scorching weather. That’s a quick turnaround to Thursday, especially with the team leaving town early because of Hurricane Ian.
- Miami's passing game has taken a big step forward. McDaniel has helped pump life into the Dolphin’s aerial attack, and though 34% of their points this season have come in one quarter vs. the Ravens, it’s clear the operation has become more dangerous. The Dolphins’ explosiveness, especially compared to last season, has been evident early on. In all of 2021, Miami had eight pass plays of 40-plus yards. Through three games this season, the Dolphins already have five such plays, tied for the league’s best. Those have all come via Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, who have been targeted on 58% of Tagovailoa’s passes and have 71% of the team’s receiving yards. (Hill, in particular, could be motivated in this one after losing twice to the Bengals last season with the Chiefs, having been stopped shy of the goal line by Bengals corner Eli Apple in a crucial play in the AFC title game.) If there’s a knock on this Dolphins offense, it’s that it has been very pass-dependent so far. Running backs Raheem Mostert and Chase Edmonds are averaging 3.3 yards per carry collectively, although the injury to Bengals defensive tackle D.J. Reader is a big development. Miami is throwing the ball at a nearly 2:1 ratio. Will there be enough balance if Tagovailoa is reinjured or slowed by injury?
- Is the Bengals' defense better than advertised? In Cincinnati’s 0-2 start, takeaways were hard to come by, logging only one while the offense had five turnovers. But by and large, the defense has done its job, allowing only three TDs, 14 conversions on 43 third downs (32.6%) and two drives longer than 59 yards in 36 defensive series. The playmaking ability came out last week in a four-sack, four-turnover performance Sunday, keeping the Jets out of the end zone. In fact, the Bengals now have gone 20 straight possessions without allowing a TD and have produced five turnovers in that span, going back to the Dallas game. Disguise is a big weapon for Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo, so it will be critical for Tagovailoa or Bridgewater to diagnose coverages correctly. That’s a lot to game plan for in such a shortened week.