Defense and kicking game making the difference

The Dolphins did what they were supposed to do on Sunday. They handled the Jets. Didn’t give up a touchdown. Cruised to a 20-3 victory. That’s what happens when 6-4 faces 0-10. It wasn’t overwhelming. It was more businesslike.

Now having said all of that: How sweet is it to outscore the Jets 44-3 in the two meetings? How sweet is it to be the franchise on the ascent not on the descent? I’ve covered too many Jets games over the years not to appreciate the ease in which the Dolphins disposed of the Jets in these two meetings.

The storyline was just enough Ryan Fitzpatrick on offense and a strong bounce-back defensive performance clearly highlighted by a fourth-and-one stuff in the fourth quarter by linebacker Elandon Roberts. That one play, a textbook tackle on Frank Gore, made a 13-3 lead look a lot more comfortable.

With Fitzpatrick throwing a pair of touchdown passes replacing the injured Tua Tagovailoa and seemingly in command throughout, the question was quickly posed to Coach Brian Flores: Tua or Fitz next Sunday against Cincinnati?

The answer: If Tua is healthy, he’s still be the starter.

This is undoubtedly the way to go. As nice as it is to have a player like Fitzpatrick, we can’t lose sight of the importance of what this season means to the growth of Tua. He needs to play. He needs to play a lot. He needs to experience the experience.

I know there are those who prefer for Tua to learn from the sideline, certainly given how well Fitzpatrick has been playing. But I don’t buy that. Tua’s upside is too high. He can take this team further than Fitzpatrick. Yes, even in his first season.

As for the team in general, two players stood out to me on Sunday, both for what they did against the Jets and what they have done all season. Two players who have been great through 11 games, and I don’t throw around great very often.

Xavien Howard and Jason Sanders. Together they have as much to do as anybody with this 7-4 record heading into three straight home games.

Howard picked off his seventh pass of the season against the Jets. He had at least two other outstanding defensive plays. He is elite. He is playing as well as any cornerback in the league right now. It’s crazy how the ball always seems to find him. Maybe, though, it’s just one special player at the very top of his game.

As for Sanders, he is on extraordinary run, having made 22 of 23 field goal attempts this season, including a 54 and a 51 yarder against the Jets. I’ve never seen a kicker so accurate from long distance. In his three seasons, Sanders has converted 12 of his 14 50-yard plus attempts. Think about that. It’s mind-boggling.

With the offensive deficiencies, specifically the lack of a running game, you know there will be some close games down the final stretch of the season. Having Sanders, provides a huge edge for this team. It has been that way all season. I mean most kickers are accurate. This is taking it to an entirely different level.

So where are we with five games remaining? The record says the Dolphins are in the thick of the playoff race and reality says that’s where they deserve to be. But another reality points to those problems on offense, problems that probably can’t be solved until the next offseason when playmakers must be the No. 1 priority.

It will be incumbent on the defense and kicking game to be the difference on most Sundays. It was certainly the difference on Sunday against the Jets, a nice workmanlike victory but an important one nonetheless.


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