December was the cruelest month to the Miami Dolphins a year ago.
Going in 8-3, they lost five in a row and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to a season-ending concussion, falling out of first place in the process.
The Dolphins, again 8-3, hope this December is not as much of a wasteland, starting with their game Sunday at the Washington Commanders that they’re favored to win and pad their lead atop the AFC East.
“This is where you make your money here,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s going to be closer games, going to be one-score games. It’s going to come down to whoever gets the ball last, and you’ve got to go win the ballgame from there.”
Miami hasn’t been 9-3 since 2001. The Dolphins enter Week 13 with the NFL’s top offense, visiting the Commanders (4-8) fresh off coach Ron Rivera firing defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio and taking over the play-calling duties on defense.
After blowing out the New York Jets and with their next game coming up at home against Tennessee (4-7), it’s up to the Dolphins not to stub their toe at Washington. The losing streak from a year ago might be a helpful memory.
“We felt like it was our year then, but things didn’t go that way,” running back Jeff Wilson Jr. said. “It just keeps us that more locked in because just as good as it’s going, it can easily go the other way.”
Look no further than the Commanders, who have lost eight of 10 since opening the season with back-to-back victories. A 45-10 drubbing at Dallas was the latest embarrassment in a season full of them, which is almost certain to bring major changes once it’s over.
“All of our energy for the remainder of the season will be focused on playing better, more consistent football and developing our players while intently evaluating the areas in which we need to improve this offseason,” owner Josh Harris said in a statement after Rivera fired Del Rio and defensive backs coach Brent Vieselmeyer. “Our fans deserve a team that compete with the NFL’s best and win sustainably over the long term.”
That’s Miami’s goal: to win the division, secure a first-round game at home and attempt to make a run. But why will this time around be different?
“I guess we’ll see,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. “I guess that’s left to be seen. But I think we’ve got the right guys in the locker room and right leadership and right mindset as a team that I think we have a chance to do some good things moving forward.”
Injuries are piling up as the Dolphins enter the season’s final stretch.
Veteran left tackle Terron Armstead did not practice Wednesday after injuring a quadriceps muscle against the Jets, and his status for Sunday is in question. Kendall Lamm, who has filled in at left tackle this season as Armstead has battled various injuries, is dealing with a back injury.
If neither can play Sunday, Kion Smith would likely fill in at left tackle. Injuries up front have been a season-long issue, as the Dolphins have used 10 different offensive linemen and started seven different combinations this season.
Safety Jevon Holland (knee), WR Tyreek Hill (ankle) and Raheem Mostert (ankle/knee) also missed practice Wednesday.
No matter who’s calling the defensive plays for Washington, the line was supposed to set the tone for the entire team this season. Instead, pass rushers Chase Young and Montez Sweat were traded.
Now the onus is on defensive tackles Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne, who have combined for 7 1/2 sacks, to make a difference, even as they deal with double-teams from opponents.
“When I’m taking on a double-team, I’m helping my team have a better option of making the play,” Allen said. “If I’m taking double-teams, I’m expecting the other guys around me to contribute and make plays.”
Rivera is hoping to simplify some things to get defenders playing faster and thinking less. That may mean a smaller playbook.
“You’re just able to focus in on certain calls: things that you know that are going to be called, things that you know that we’re going to run,” cornerback Kendall Fuller said. “When you watch tape, you’re able to put yourself in those plays and prepare yourself to be where you need to be once you see certain plays and depending on how the offense wants to attack us and things like that.”
Jaelan Phillips’ absence at practice Wednesday was felt most by Bradley Chubb.
The Dolphins linebackers are often seen laughing, dancing or participating in drills together on the sideline, but practices the rest of the season will look much different after Phillips suffered a season-ending right Achilles tendon tear in the win at the Jets.
Chubb said moving forward without one of their most productive players will be a “new norm” for Miami’s defense. Phillips had 6 1/2 sacks, seven tackles for loss, 11 QB hits and an interception in eight games. He underwent surgery this week and was placed on season-ending injured reserve Tuesday, when the Dolphins signed veteran pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul.
“That’s what he would want us to do: Go out there and ball and do everything we talked about in the offseason,” Chubb said. “I’m going to go out there and continue to do what’s best for this team each and every day, and I know he’s going to do everything to get back.”
AP Sports Writer Alanis Thames in Miami Gardens, Florida, contributed.
AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL
Copyright © 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.