By Sam McPherson
It’s always interesting when two teams heading in opposite directions meet on the gridiron this late in the NFL regular season. As Thanksgiving approaches, teams have established an identity that defines their season. For the San Francisco 49ers in 2016, that means a nine-game losing streak. But, for the Miami Dolphins, the 49ers’ opponent in Week 12, it means a five-game winning streak that puts them in playoff contention for the first time in eight seasons. The last time the Dolphins finished above .500 and made the postseason was in 2008.
Right now, Miami is rolling—the club has put together a win streak fueled by clutch plays in key moments, as the Dolphins have won four straight by a combined 18 points. After a 1-4 start, Miami now sits just one game out of the final playoff spot in the AFC, and after two weeks on the road in Southern California, the Dolphins should be very happy to be returning home for a holiday weekend.
Dolphins Season Record: 6-4
With a 6-4 mark, the Dolphins already have matched their 2015 win total. Miami has had just one postseason appearance since the 2001 season, and this could be the year the Dolphins make it back to meaningful January football. Head coach Adam Gase has this organization trending in the upward direction, and that’s impressive considering how the season started for Miami. The team lost its first two games—both on the road—to Seattle and New England, respectively, by a combined nine points.
That could have damaged most teams, but the Dolphins have recovered to win six of eight since then. After starting 0-3 on the road, Miami next won two straight away from home (in San Diego and Los Angeles). These were the first two wins in the Pacific Time Zone for the Dolphins since 2011. Gase clearly has this team headed toward success this season.
Dolphins On Offense
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill is maddeningly inconsistent, but he’s getting the job done right now. The late fourth-quarter comeback win on Sunday over the Rams was impressive, especially considering the Dolphins hadn’t been able to move the ball all day against the L.A. defense. Overall, Tannehill’s numbers this season are solid: 65.9 completion percentage, 12 touchdowns, eight interceptions and a 91.1 QB rating. However, there is always the perception he could be better than he plays. It may be a label Tannehill never shakes in this league.
Running back Jay Ajayi has been the key to the Dolphins’ recent success. In the five straight victories, he has averaged 6.1 yards per carry while gaining almost 700 yards. That ground-game success has certainly opened up the passing opportunities for Tannehill. He has a trio of wide receivers to throw to, each capable of breaking big plays. Jarvis Landry (60 receptions) and Devante Parker (12.8 average per catch) get the headlines, but the 49ers cannot turn their backs on Kenny Stills, who leads Miami with four TD catches and a 17.7 yards-per-reception average.
Dolphins On Defense
Linebacker Kiko Alonso leads the Miami defense with 78 tackles this season, a number that ranks 19th in the NFL right now. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Cameron Wake have a combined 12.5 sacks this season, making the front seven of the Dolphins defense quite formidable. Safeties Isa Abdul-Quddus and Reshad Jones each have 51 tackles this year as well, meaning it’s going to be a challenge for most offenses to break through this Miami defensive lineup.
Currently, the Dolphins rank in the middle of the league in both points allowed per game (21.6) and yards allowed per game (350.6). However, like the offense, things generally have been better during the five-game win streak than they were prior. Miami has surrendered only 19.4 points a contest during the streak, for example. Considering the close games the Dolphins have been in this season, every point clearly matters in the win-loss column.
Dolphins Players To Watch
The 49ers run defense is the worst in the league, giving up almost 180 yards per game on the ground. If San Francisco cannot stop Ajayi from running the ball, it’s going to be a long day for the 49ers in Miami.
On the other side of the ball, the San Francisco offensive line has to prevent Suh and Wake from penetrating the backfield and forcing Colin Kaepernick into mistakes. The 49ers QB will have to make sure he holds on to the ball, too, as the Dolphins defense has forced 10 fumbles this season.
With the Miami running game presently achieving such great results, it’s hard to imagine the Dolphins not trying to ram the ball down the San Francisco defense’s throat from start to finish on Sunday. Last week, the Rams held Miami to under 100 yards rushing for the game and still lost, however. The 49ers don’t have the same ability or talent to do that. Expect the Dolphins to run all day long against San Francisco and force Kaepernick into at least two turnovers in a 31-17 win.