The Dolphins were well aware of how the final month of last year’s regular season played out. A string of five straight losses turned an 8-3 start into a nerve-wracking finish, needing a win — and help — in the regular-season finale just to sneak into the playoffs.
Days before Miami embarked on this year’s December slate in search of redemption, coach Mike McDaniel foretold a more calloused team ready for the stretch run of the season.
The Dolphins ensured that December 2023 wouldn’t begin similarly as the previous year, with a 45-15 road win against the Washington Commanders that gives Miami its first 9-3 start since 2001.
The victory also increases the Dolphins’ lead in the AFC East to three games as the team inches closer to its first division title since 2008.
“This team is obviously within this franchise but the history has nothing to do with this team,” McDaniel said. “I think it says a lot about where this team has grown from last year.
He added: “There’s a lot of growth and I think that is imperative if you’re trying to win games down the stretch and you when you have the choice of winning or the season being over in that area of the season. That comes regardless of what team you are, gives you a chance to utilize the entire season of growth and and do something special that everyone wants to do.”
Facing a reeling Commanders (4-9) defense that recently fired its coordinator and defensive backs coach, the Dolphins’ instant-offense connection between quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and wide receiver Tyreek Hill continued in the rout.
Tagovailoa completed 18 of 24 passes for 280 yards and two touchdowns, both to Hill. The first, a 78-yard score on the offense’s third play from scrimmage, gave Miami an early 7-0 lead in the first quarter. The second, a 60-yard pass, gave the Dolphins a 24-7 lead in the second quarter.
The two long scores gave Hill a league-leading 12 touchdown catches this season and contributed to a five-catch, 157-yard performance.
“I believe I am having my best season,” said Hill, who remains on pace for the NFL’s first 2,000-yard receiving season. “Even if I didn’t have the numbers, I feel like I’m doing a great job of being in the right spot for the quarterback and making sure I’m doing a great job blocking and just understanding this whole offense. I think this past offseason, I really had a chance to just look back and just understand my mistakes from last year and I took it head-on.”
Miami’s defense forced punts on the Commanders’ first three drives, held quarterback Sam Howell to a season-low 127 passing yards and scored after outside linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel stepped in front of a screen pass and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown, giving Miami a 17-0 lead with 55 seconds left in the first quarter.
The defense’s performance came with a pair of starters— outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips (season-ending torn Achilles) and safety Jevon Holland (knee) — sidelined and another, inside linebacker Jerome Baker, who injured his knee in the second quarter and did not return.
“I think it starts with [coordinator Vic Fangio’s] defense,” said Van Ginkel, who also recorded five tackles and two pass breakups. “He’s a very successful coach, he has been for a very long time. He puts you in good play calls to be successful. He kind of does a good job throughout the year in how to build and puts you in good positions to succeed.”
Running back De’Von Achane, returning to the lineup after aggravating a knee injury, recorded 103 scrimmage yards and two rushing touchdowns, while fellow back Raheem Mostert’s 2-yard touchdown run was his league-leading 14th rushing score and gave Miami a 31-7 lead heading into halftime.
The Dolphins continued their trend of beating teams they have been expected to — Miami has won all of its games against squads with a losing record — and outside of a trio of injuries to starters Baker, Terron Armstead and Robert Hunt, the team left FedEx Field without many worries ahead of a home “Monday Night Football” game against the Tennessee Titans.
There were small feats within the victory for Miami, which leapfrogged the Baltimore Ravens (9-3) in the AFC standings because of a better conference record. The Dolphins managed a clean game with zero turnovers after committing six giveaways in the previous two games.
Miami is still weeks away from a telling three-game conclusion to the regular season, including a New Year’s Eve matchup in Baltimore that will likely decide postseason seeding.
But after the memory of last year’s December plunge, the Dolphins have started the month on a different trajectory, with belief that this time will be different.
“I think everyone is locked in,” Tagovailoa said. “I think everyone has started to handle their job. Not more seriously, but everyone’s starting to do a little more. You see guys staying a little longer, watching film together. Meetings, you know there are no meetings after practices on third down days, you see a lot of position groups meetings and staying back a little longer.
“We’re starting to see a lot of guys staying out on the field a little longer as well. I think that’s what Mike is seeing, is seeing everyone knows that we can do something special this year and no one on our team is trying to waste that opportunity.”