KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins take the field on Saturday night against the Kansas City Chiefs, it will be impossible not to feel the stakes and the weight of what they must accomplish. This is, for all intents and purposes, a blueprint game that will shape what the future holds for this franchise.
The Dolphins (11-6) stumbled toward the playoffs, going 2-3 in their past five games and ended up losing the AFC East title to the Buffalo Bills in the final week of the regular season. The defeat set up the Dolphins to play in one of the coldest games in NFL history at Arrowhead Stadium against the reigning Super Bowl champions.
One of the biggest themes of this season’s Dolphins was their inability to beat the better teams in the league. They ended up beating one team with a winning record this season, which was the Dallas Cowboys in Week 16. That’s a problem they’re going to have face head-on in the postseason.
Despite the NFC South’s best efforts, every team in the playoffs has a winning record. The real gauntlet is just now starting and a win against the Chiefs would go far toward alleviating concerns about how this team needs to be shaped.
The Dolphins have largely been labeled a finesse team due to how explosive their offense is and how much space they’re able to create on a play-by-play basis. If there’s ever a week to shed that label and establish a perceived sense of physicality (every NFL team is physical, the sport demands it), this is it.
“You can’t prepare for a game like that with that kind of weather, so it’ll be new,” quarterback Tua Tagovailoa told reporters this week about his first playoff start.
So, yeah, about that weather. The temperature will range anywhere from -10 degrees to -30 degrees with wind chill throughout the course of the game (retractable roof please!). The Dolphins have lost 10 straight games in temperatures below 40 degrees and they’re about to play in a game that may reach 70 degrees colder than that. The Chiefs will have to deal with that extreme weather disadvantage as well, but they have the advantage of living in the area. To be fair to the Dolphins, playing in this level of cold is not something anyone can truly prepare for.
“No one likes being cold. That’s why we have temperature control,” Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel joked with reporters on Thursday.
Depending on how this game goes, the Dolphins may accelerate their decision to give Tagovailoa a contract extension that locks him in as a starter for the long term. Tagovailoa is certainly a starting quarterback in the league, but he hasn’t been someone who can elevate the offense and produce points when the conditions around him aren’t perfect. The Dolphins have struggled at times this season when they get boxed into running a more traditional, dropback style game — which remains a crucial skill to have in the NFL even as quarterbacks become bigger threats with the ball in their hand. If the Dolphins as they’re currently assembled are the peak of what they can be under Tagovailoa, they may have to consider making a trade like the one Los Angeles Rams made with Jared Goff and Matthew Stafford. It’s not that Tagovailoa is a terrible quarterback, but the evidence is starting to pile up that they might need a bit more.
Sixty minutes of game clock to define several years of the future. These are the stakes that make elimination tournaments in any sport so captivating, and the Dolphins, searching for their first postseason victory since 2000, are almost at their boiling point as they enter the frozen tundra against one of the most raucous crowds in the league. A win would truly be franchise-defining.