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By Abe Gutierrez

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Inclement weather conditions and a sloppy field led to an ugly game in South Florida Sunday afternoon. However, playing for their playoff lives, the Miami Dolphins will certainly take the win. The team held off the rallying Arizona Cardinals to come away with a gutsy 26-23 victory at Hard Rock Stadium.

The win improves the Dolphins record to 8-5 on the year, and with the Denver Broncos losing to the Tennessee Titans (13-10), Miami draws even (record-wise) with the defending Super Bowl champs. Nevertheless, because tiebreaker criteria for wild card teams is based on head-to-head record, conference record, record against common opponents, and strength of victories, respectively, the Fins find themselves seventh in the AFC playoff race and out of the playoff standings.

Offense: B+

After tying his career-high with three interceptions last week in Baltimore, quarterback Ryan Tannehill (15-for-20 for 195 yards, 3 TDs and an INT for a QBR of 124.0) redeemed himself by tying his season-best with a trio of touchdown passes. The Texas A&M product set the tone in the first offensive drive of the game, connecting with Kenny Stills (6 receptions, 97 yards, TD) for a 28-yard touchdown that would put Miami ahead until the three-minute mark in the final quarter.

Unfortunately, Tannehill was taken to the locker room with less than two minutes to play in the third quarter following a knee injury caused by a low tackle from Cardinals’ defensive end Calais Campbell. His immediate future is uncertain, as the team fears a possible ACL tear.

Other offensive standouts included wide receiver Jarvis Landry (4 receptions, 103 yards), who electrified the crowd with a sensational (career-long) 71-yard catch and run to the Cardinals’ 5-yard line. Stills also had a tremendous game, as well as tight end Dion Sims and running back Damien Williams who accounted for the other two Miami touchdowns.

As a team, Miami registered 13 first downs (10 on passes and 3 on rushing plays) and 314 total yards (231 passing yards and 83 rushing yards). On a negative note, the Dolphins struggled yet again on third downs, converting only 3 of 12 attempts.

Defense: A

The best way to describe the effort put forth by Miami’s defense in Week 14 would be opportunistic. That’s because they helped win the turnover battle by capitalizing on the Cardinals’ unforced errors and kept Arizona out of the end zone for the better part of three quarters.

The Cardinals came into Week 14 having scored touchdowns on their first possession in their last two games, but Miami’s defense had other ideas. Playing in place of the injured Kiko Alonso, middle linebacker Mike Hull made the best of his opportunity by picking off Carson Palmer and stalling Arizona’s opening drive to set the tone.

Defensive ends Andre Branch (6 tackles, 1 sack, 1 pass defended) and Cameron Wake (2 tackles, 1 sack) were instrumental in the victory, and so was the play of Ndamukong Suh (4 tackles), safety Bacarri Rambo (3 tackles, 1 INTs, 1 pass defended) and the aforementioned Hull.

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Special Teams: A+

It was a solid day for the special teams unit that put Miami in great position to get into field-goal range and kick the game winner. Even though Landry lost a fumble earlier, he made up for it by returning a punt 20 yards into plus-territory (Cards’ 47-yard line) with 1:29 to play with the score knotted up at 23 points.

With one second left in regulation, kicker Andrew Franks split the uprights to record his first game-winning field goal from 21 yards out that kept Miami’s playoff hopes alive. However, those weren’t the only special teams plays that had an impact on the outcome of this ballgame.

Following the Cardinals’ first touchdown of the game in the fourth quarter, Miami’s special teams came up big by blocking Arizona’s PAT attempt and finished the job by returning it to the house for two points.

Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips was credited with the blocked kick, while Walt Aikens, who had a stellar day, put the exclamation mark on the play by taking it back the other way to put Miami ahead, 23-15 with 7:05 left on the game clock.

Punter Matt Darr also did a solid job despite the poor playing conditions with eight punts for an average of 43.3 yards per boot, three that landed inside the Cardinals’ 20-yard line, only one touchback and a long of 51 yards.

Coaching: A-

Miami’s coaching staff certainly has to be commended for getting this team ready to play its first meaningful December game in ages. Defensively, the Fins’ staff did a great job of play calling by constantly pressuring Palmer (18-of-33 for 145 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs and 3 sacks for a 60.8 QBR), but most of all, capitalizing on the Cards unforced errors (4 fumbles, 2 lost).

On the opposite side of the ball, this team showed tremendous fourth-quarter poise with momentum on the Cardinals side and the game slipping away from them. Kudos to Adam Gase following Tannehill’s game-ending injury, as no one on the Fins’ sideline panicked when the Cardinals tied the game with 3:01 left to play.

With their playoff hopes on the line, veteran backup quarterback Matt Moore (3-of-5 for 47 yards, 91.3 QBR) came in prepared and did just enough to put Miami in position to kick the game-winning field goal as time expired.

The only reason Miami’s coaching staff isn’t worthy of a perfect letter grade this week is because there were too many penalties (14 penalties for 118 yards). That’s something that has to be addressed if this team is going to have a chance to sneak into the postseason and make some noise.

Next up: Dolphins travel to frigid Meadowlands for showdown with Jets in Week 15

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Looking to keep their playoff hopes alive, the Miami Dolphins will travel to East Rutherford, New Jersey for a pivotal showdown against the fading New York Jets on Saturday night, Dec. 17. With Jets head coach Todd Bowles on the hot seat and the team being led by Bryce Petty at quarterback, the Dolphins will have a golden opportunity to stay in the AFC Wild Card race.