Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins

Dolphins at Bengals: Battle of surprises in the Queen City

Both the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals have won three of their first four games. But is either one of these teams a serious playoff contender?

A year ago, both the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals finished third in the AFC East and AFC North, respectively. The former squandered a 4-2 start, lost eight of its final 10 games and finished 6-10.

As for Marvin Lewis’ club, the team finished on a high note last season by knocking the Detroit Lions and Baltimore Ravens out of the playoffs with wins on the final two Sundays. But even a 7-6 finish (after a 0-3 start) couldn’t prevent a second straight losing campaign for a club that reached the postseason five consecutive years from 2011-15.

So what to make of each of these teams so far this year? Miami had won its first three games, defeating the Titans, Jets and Raiders. But this past Sunday, they were non-competitive at Foxborough to the tune of 38-7. Adam Gase’s club had allowed only 52 points in their first three outings. But the New England Patriots outgained the Dolphins in total yards, 449-172, and the skepticism surrounding the team’s fast start started all over again.

Meanwhile, it’s been a slightly different story in terms of the Bengals and the news is far more encouraging. And a lot of that optimism surrounds the play of quarterback Andy Dalton. The eight-year signal-caller has thrown for 1,197 yards and 11 scores during the team’s 3-1 start. There have been six interceptions, but four of those came in the team’s 31-21 loss at Carolina in Week 4. Yes, those picks certainly count. But for the most part, Dalton has highly efficient this season and his usual rapport with wide receiver A.J. Green has never been more evident. The perennial Pro Bowler has caught 20 passes for 297 yards and five of Dalton’s 11 scores.

The Bengals’ quarterback has also benefitted from improved pass protection so far this season. Cincinnati has allowed only seven sacks in four games. A season ago, with left tackle Andrew Whitworth leaving via free agency, the club surrendered 40 quarterback traps. In 2017, it took Lewis’ team three games to score its first touchdown of the season. The club finished with 290 points and 31 offensive touchdowns. To date, there have already been 126 points and 15 offensive trips to the end zone. Now if only the team’s defensive unit was a bit more consistent…

As for this Sunday’s clash at Paul Brown Stadium, quarterback Ryan Tannehill and the rest of his Dolphins’ teammates will be looking to make amends for that awful showing at New England. Like Dalton, Miami’s signal-caller is off to a very solid start and has shown no signs of rust after missing the entire 2017 season. Tannehill has thrown more than twice as many touchdown passes (7) as interceptions (3) and is hitting on 69.1 percent of his throws. The key has been his ability to get the ball into the hands of playmakers such as Kenny Stills, Jakeem Grant and Albert Wilson as soon as possible.

Last Sunday against the Patriots, the Dolphins barely had the football. And if the Dolphins are going to get a road win here, they may have to add to their impressive takeaway total. Miami has already forced 10 turnovers in four games, five fewer than the team managed in all of ’17. And perhaps a theft of two of Dalton could be the key to a big road win for Gase’s club.

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