Blitz-happy Dolphins will try to slow Mahomes, Chiefs
MIAMI – The focus is on the matchup between Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa, even though there's no debating the Kansas City Chiefs have the better quarterback.
The Miami Dolphins might have the superior defense, however, which lends intrigue to Sunday's game against the reigning Super Bowl champions.
The Dolphins (8-4) have allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL, and wins in seven of the past eight games have vaulted them into contention for their first playoff berth in four years. But they're stepping up in class against Mahomes and the high-scoring Chiefs (11-1), who have already clinched a postseason spot by winning their past seven games.
"I wish we could have 14 defenders," Miami coach Brian Flores said.
Sometimes it seems as though the Dolphins do. Flores' blitz-loving, ball-hawking scheme has produced at least one takeaway in 18 consecutive games, the longest such streak in the NFL, and cornerback Xavien Howard leads the league with eight interceptions.
The question is whether the Dolphins can disrupt the Chiefs, whose eight turnovers are tied for the fewest in the NFL. Mahomes has thrown two interceptions in 463 passes, the league's lowest rate.
And he tends to burn blitzes.
"We always want to be aggressive. It's an aggressive game," Flores said. "So we'll see how the game unfolds. We'll have a plan going in. Oftentimes that plan has to be adjusted."
Flores ran the New England Patriots' defense in 2018 when they beat the Chiefs twice, including in the AFC championship game.
"Brian is a great defensive mind," Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. "When we were in the championship game, he was the one calling them. So he knows that thing backward and forward, and you can see it. You can see it in how those guys are playing. They play hard, aggressive, definitely maximizing everything he's got there."
Flores' memory of those 2018 games isn't entirely favorable, because the Chiefs scored 40 and 31 points despite losing.
"I remember it was hard to stop them. It's still hard to stop them. It's probably harder to stop them now," Flores said. "When you talk about seeing a team evolve, they've got a little bit of a killer instinct. When they smell blood in the water."
HANGING ONTO THE BALL
First-round draft pick Tagovailoa is 4-1 as the Dolphins' starter. They've reached 30 points only once in those games, but his ability to minimize mistakes complements Miami's stout defense.
"He knows how to manage the game and manage the situation," Mahomes said. "That's something that I wasn't that good at my first year. That veteran kind of mental mindset that he has, I think it's truly special at this time in his career."
Tagovailoa is the third quarterback in the Super Bowl era to not throw an interception in his first five career starts, joining Dak Prescott and Kyle Allen.
FREE PLAYS, FREE POINTS
Mahomes has become one of the best in the NFL at drawing defenses offside, using hard counts in mostly empty stadiums to force a penalty. And he may have no comparison when it comes to using free plays to his advantage. His go-ahead touchdown pass to Travis Kelce against Denver on Sunday was the latest example.
"I try to use cadence as much as possible," Mahomes said. "Quick cadence, hard counts, whatever it is, just to get an advantage in any single way, and the offensive line does a great job of sitting in there, really paying attention, and we work on it throughout the week."
RED ZONE WOES
The Chiefs had failed to score a touchdown on seven straight trips inside the red zone before Kelce's 20-yard scoring catch last week. That included a couple of instances in which the Chiefs reached the 1-yard line, but were thwarted by better defensive line play and their own offensive miscues.
"We all own a piece of the pie," Reid said, "but I can get the guys a better chance if we do some different things there. But we'll get that worked out. I can't give you exactly the things, but I will tell you I can do a heck of a lot better down there for them."
YOUNG UP FRONT
For the first time in franchise history, the Dolphins started three rookie offensive linemen last week, and they'll likely do it again.
Left tackle Austin Jackson, right guard Solomon Kindley and right tackle Rob Hunt – each a 2020 draft pick – helped Miami allow no sacks while rushing for 110 yards in a win over Cincinnati.
"I'm proud of those three rookies," Miami center Ted Karras said. "They've played really well. It's fun to play with those guys and watch them grow."
AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta contributed to this report.
Fun in the sun
WHAT — Kansas City Chiefs (11-1) at Miami Dolphins (8-4)
WHEN/WHERE — Sunday, noon CST
TV/RADIO — CBS(KCTV 5, Comcast Cable channel 3, HD 803)/WDAF-FM (The Wolf) (106.5 FM)
OPENING LINE — Chiefs by 7
RECORD VS. SPREAD — Chiefs 6-6; Dolphins 9-3
SERIES RECORD — Dolphins lead 16-14
LAST MEETING — Chiefs beat Dolphins 29-13 on Dec. 24, 2017 at Kansas City
LAST WEEK — Chiefs beat Broncos 22-16; Dolphins beat Bengals 19-7
AP PRO32 RANKING — Chiefs No. 1, Dolphins No. 12
CHIEFS OFFENSE — OVERALL (1), RUSH (16), PASS (1).
CHIEFS DEFENSE — OVERALL (17), RUSH (27), PASS (13T).
DOLPHINS OFFENSE — OVERALL (28), RUSH (26), PASS (24).
DOLPHINS DEFENSE — OVERALL (16), RUSH (21), PASS (15).
STREAKS, STATS AND NOTES — The Chiefs are second in the NFL in point differential, and the Dolphins are fourth. ... Kansas City will clinch the AFC West with a victory or a tie, or a Raiders loss against the Colts. ... With a win, the Chiefs would have the best 13-game record in franchise history at 12-1. The 2003 team started 11-1 before losing to Denver. ... The Chiefs would reach 12 wins for the third consecutive season, the longest streak in club history. ... Kansas City could set a franchise record with its 10th road win in a row. Coach Andy Reid is 108-66-1 on the road for a .618 winning rate, best in NFL history. ... Last week Patrick Mahomes had his 25th game of at least 300 yards passing, breaking a tie with Trent Green for the most in Chiefs history. ... TE Travis Kelce reached 1,000 yards receiving for the fifth consecutive season last week, a record for NFL tight ends. Kelce has 1,082 yards receiving, breaking his own record for the most by a tight end through 12 games. ...Kelce is tied with Kellen Winslow (24) for the third-most 100-yard receiving games by a tight end. ... Kelce and Tyreek Hill each have 45 career TD receptions, four behind Stephone Paige for No. 4 in Chiefs history. ... The Chiefs are second in the NFL with 14 interceptions. ... Chiefs RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire will return after missing last week's game with the flu. He needs 70 yards from scrimmage to pass WR Dwayne Bowe (995) for third most by a rookie in franchise history. ... The Dolphins have won seven of their past eight games. Their 12-game record is their best since 2003. ... Miami's 9-3 record against the spread leads the NFL. ... The Dolphins rank second in the NFL in points allowed. For the first time since 2002, they've allowed 10 points or less in consecutive games. ... Dolphins CB Xavien Howard made his NFL-leading eighth interception last week before he was ejected for throwing a punch. For the second time this year, Howard has an interception in four consecutive games. He joins Lester Hayes as the only players since 1970 with multiple four-game streaks in a single season. ... Tua Tagovailoa is 4-1 as Miami's starting QB. He's the third quarterback in the Super Bowl era to not throw an interception in his first five career starts, joining Dak Prescott and Kyle Allen. ... Last week the Dolphins started three rookie offensive linemen for the first time in team history. Miami didn't allow a sack. ... Miami's streak of at least one takeaway in 18 consecutive games is the longest in the NFL. ... LB Kyle Van Noy had three sacks last week to double his season total. ... Jason Sanders is 69 for 79 (87%) on field goals for his career. He could miss his next five tries and would still be the most accurate kicker in Dolphins history. ... Fantasy tip: The Chiefs are vulnerable against the rush, and Miami might rely heavily on RB Myles Gaskin. He returned last week after missing four games with an injury, and he totaled 90 yards rushing and 51 receiving.
– The Associated Press