Dolphins, Cardinals need wins to stay in hunt
A victory won't be nearly enough to solidify a playoff spot for either the Miami Dolphins or the Arizona Cardinals, but a loss on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla., will make it that much more difficult for the Dolphins to sneak in through the back door and a loss by the Cardinals would essentially end their season.
Miami had won six straight games to climb back into the race only to get blown out last Sunday by Baltimore 38-6, killing precious momentum that coach Adam Gase thought would propel his team into wild-card status.
"The first thing we had to do earlier this week was correct a lot of the mistakes that we made in that last game," Gase said. "We had some uncharacteristic mistakes, at least compared to what we were doing the six previous games. It wasn't for a lack of effort.
"Guys were flying around trying to make plays. We probably pressed a little too hard, guys trying too hard to make plays. We have to reel it back in, get back to the details of what we were doing -- everybody doing their job -- instead of guys trying to go outside of the box and do too much."
The Cardinals, 2-3-1 in their past six games, haven't been able to fully rediscover themselves following a 13-3 regular-season finish a year ago when they set multiple franchise records on both offense and defense.
Coach Bruce Arians, however, thinks his team may have finally turned the corner with last week's 31-23 victory over the Washington Redskins, which saw quarterback Carson Palmer finally connect on a handful of deep passes, the defense finally shut down a team at crunch time, and Arians' own "no risk it, no biscuit" philosophy win out.
He risked it twice, electing to go for it on fourth down late in the fourth quarter -- and getting a huge 14-yard run by second-year running back David Johnson -- and then deciding to go for the jugular with a long, unexpected pass play -- Palmer hitting J.J. Nelson for a 42-yard scoring strike on second-and-10.
In the end, All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson sealed the victory with an interception, his 20th since entering the league in 2011.
"I still think we can play a heck of a lot better," Arians said, adding later, "We need one more. One more win and I'd consider it a roll. We definitely need to win an away game this week."
Both clubs likely will try to exploit their talented running backs -- Miami with Jay Ajayi and the Cardinals with Johnson -- and then hope Ryan Tannehill and Palmer can hit some shots downfield.
Tannehill said the Dolphins and Cardinals are each fortunate to have stellar backs.
"It's huge. Jay has been big for us this year," Tannehill said. "I think really getting the running game going was crucial to us starting the ball rolling in the right direction. I think the first big game he had -- the first couple games that we beat Pittsburgh and (the) New York (Jets) -- were huge. That kind of set the momentum, set the tone, for us offensively.
"Obviously, he had those huge games, but has just been consistent. He runs hard, physical, tough and gets those tough yards after contact. It has been a big help for us offensively."
Palmer and veteran star wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, meanwhile, have called Arizona's Johnson a Most Valuable Player candidate. And they might be right.
No one has more yards from scrimmage than Johnson, who is two touchdowns away from tying John David Crow's 1962 franchise record for most touchdowns in a season (12) and is the only player besides Edgerrin James (2000 and 2005) to record at least 100 or more yards from scrimmage in his first 12 games to start a season.
"I think he is, if not the best, one of the best couple players at any position," Palmer said of Johnson, who scored twice against Washington. "There is no doubt he should be in the MVP talks, in my biased opinion. What he does in the passing game, what he does in the run game, what he does to defensive coordinators and opposing defenses late on Monday night, Tuesday, Wednesday and through the week, trying to prepare and figure out where he is going to be and how to stop him is invaluable for us."
Arizona knows that to have a chance against the Dolphins, it must try to contain Ajayi, keep Tannehill from beating them with his legs when he leaves the pocket and try to find a way to neutralize the pass rush of Miami's feared defensive line, particularly defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.
A big part of that effort will fall on the shoulders of the Cardinals' new starting right tackle, Ulrick John, who was snatched off of Miami's practice squad earlier this season. John replaced D.J. Humphries, who was switched to starting left tackle in place of the injured Jared Veldheer.
"We're trying to develop a program to where we can promote from within instead of going to get guys on the street," Gase said. "Them (the Cardinals) grabbing him, that was a tough pill for us to swallow, because they're hard guys to find.
"They (young tackles) don't exist around the league. The way that injuries have been going, it's hard to keep your practice squad together. They (the Cardinals) did their research on him and felt like they had a guy they could bring onto their roster that they could develop and put him in this position if they needed him."
The Cardinals ruled out safety Tyrann Mathieu, who is dealing with a sore shoulder and will miss his second straight game. Miami, however, knows it must be careful should it decide to throw the ball anywhere in the direction of All-Pro cornerback Patrick Peterson. Tannehill said he can't treat Peterson like any other cornerback and that he must be mindful at all times with No. 21 on the field.
"I think you have to. You're aware of him as a player, just like you're aware of an elite pass-rusher or an elite linebacker," he said. "You're aware of guys that can have a big impact on the game. Not necessarily that you're avoiding him throughout the whole game, but you're aware. You want to make sure that it's the right matchup, it's the right shot and the ball is in the right location. If you do leave one behind the receiver or throw one when you shouldn't, he's going to get it. Just an awareness of where he's at in the game is a big part of it."
Updated December 9, 2016