Bengals at Dolphins: 5 storylines to watch in today’s game

The Cincinnati Bengals don’t have much to play for these days, but coach Zac Taylor is hoping to see the same kind of fight they showed last year when they faced the Miami Dolphins.

Cincinnati (2-8-1) travels to play Miami (7-4) on Sunday for the rematch of what Taylor called one of the “craziest” games he’s witnessed, one that showed his players still cared about trying to win games even in a lost season.

The Bengals strung together 23 unanswered points over the final 6:11 to force overtime before falling 38-35 on the road in Week 15, ensuring they would finish as the worst team in the league even with a win against Cleveland in the finale. The incredible comeback included Jordan Evans recovering an onside kick with 29 seconds left to set up an Andy Dalton touchdown pass as time expired.

Here are five storylines to watch Sunday as the teams meet again:

1. Miami as a blueprint?

When these teams played a year ago, they were both in the mix for the No. 1 draft pick, but Miami won both its last two games to finish 5-11 and ended up with Tua Tagovailoa at No. 5 overall, while the Bengals claimed the right to select Joe Burrow with a 2-14 record.

Now, the Dolphins are 7-4 and in the hunt for a playoff spot in Brian Flores’ second season as coach. The Bengals are one tie better than their final record last year – with five games left -- and still have to play the Ravens and Steelers. They are in position now to draft third, if the season ended today.

Taylor said Miami is somewhat of a blueprint to follow for turning things around, though the Dolphins were further along last year.

“They’ve done a great job,” Taylor said. “We did feel last year that it was a good football team that we played down there. This year obviously they have a lot of new faces on defense, and they’ve gotten a lot healthier. A lot of the guys that we played last year were on IR when we played them, and now they are back and are in good form. I know that they added some free agents and draft picks. Over on the defensive side of the ball, they are playing really well. The special teams unit is obviously one of the top (units) in the league. Offensively, they’ve done a great job of finding points when they need to. They’ve won some blowouts and they’ve won some pretty dirty games. They’ve just done a good job with all the things that you expect to do in this league. It’ll be a tough test for us.”

2. Which quarterback starts for Miami?

The Bengals spent the week preparing for both 16-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick and rookie Tua Tagovailoa, but Miami coach Brian Flores said it will be a gameday decision. Tagovailoa was limited in practice all week while trying to come back from a thumb injury that caused him to miss last week’s win over the Jets; however, Flores has indicated that when fully healthy, Tagovailoa remains the starter.

Fitzpatrick started the first six games, going 3-3 before Tagovailoa replaced him, and then returned midgame Week 11 when Tagovailoa suffered the thumb injury. He has thrown for 1,909 yards and 12 touchdowns with eight interceptions in eight games.

Tagovailoa is 3-1 and has thrown for 602 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions in five games.

“I think they’ve done a lot of similar stuff, similar scheme,” Bengals safety Jessie Bates said. “They run boots from both sides. They don’t do a lot of things different. I think Fitz sees it better obviously, because he’s been in the league for a very long time. There may be things where he goes to the line and checks plays and stuff like that where Tua doesn’t. I think we have a good feel for both of them whoever it may be. They’re going to try to get the ball down the field and make explosive plays and we have to limit that.”

Either way, the Bengals need to focus on shutting down the pass. Miami struggles in the running game and is shorthanded with Matt Breida on the COVID-19 list, Myles Gaskin still working back from an MCL sprain and Salvon Ahmed and DeAndre Washington doubtful with injuries.

3. Finding a rhythm offensively

Cincinnati should be most concerned about how its offense will rebound in Brandon Allen’s second start at quarterback, facing a Miami defense that ranks second in scoring and first in third-down percentage. The Bengals managed just 155 yards of offense last week against the Giants and converted just 3 of 10 third downs, while struggling with penalties and turnovers that prevented them from getting into any kind of rhythm.

Miami cornerback Xavien Howard leads the league with seven interceptions, and the additions of Elandon Roberts and Kyle Van Noy in the linebacker corps has given Flores some stability in the middle of the defense.

“It’s definitely a big challenge,” Bengals tight end Drew Sample said. “They have really good players across the board. They’ve got some veterans; they’ve got some young guys. They’re athletic; they’re strong. They do a lot of different things to get the offense off balance and so for us we’re going to have to be able to adjust to what they’re trying to do to us and then at the end of the day it’s just about executing. I think for us we just need to execute and get into a rhythm and be able to go from there.”

4. Special teams challenge

Cincinnati had a big game on special teams last week and will need another performance like that to match up with the best special teams unit in the league. Miami is rated No. 1 by FootballOutsiders.com, estimating how many points, compared to the league average, each team receives from the five elements of special teams: field goals/extra points, kickoffs, kick returns, punts and punt returns.

The Bengals moved up to No. 6 on that list with the help of two fake punts in the last three games, and Brandon Wilson’s 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown last week. Shawn Williams ran for a first down on a fake punt in that game as well and came up with two big blocks on a long punt return by Alex Erickson to put the Bengals in good position for one last drive before Allen fumbled to end the game.

Wilson is expected to play but didn’t practice Wednesday or Thursday and is listed as questionable with a hamstring injury despite a full practice Friday.

For Miami, Jakeem Grant leads the NFL in punt returns, and the Dolphins are second in the league covering punts and No. 1 covering kickoffs. Kicker Jason Sanders ranks seventh in touchbacks, and former Bengals special team asset Clayton Fejedelem leads the Dolphins in special teams tackles in the role of punt team protector, despite missing three games.

“At the end of the day we just gotta go out there and just control what we can control and just do the best we can do,” Wilson said. “They have some good guys and you know they have Clayton over there, so… That’s one of the guys we have to watch for.”

Bengals long snapper Clark Harris is questionable after missing two days with illness but he was a full participant Friday and expected to play.

5. A few X-factors

COVID-19 will keep Bengals defensive line coach Nick Eason out for a second straight week but after missing multiple coaches in recent weeks, it will feel a little more normal Sunday if Eason is the only assistant out.

The Bengals also have to adjust to warm weather after playing and practicing in the cold all week, so hydration will be important. The forecast in Miami is 75 and partly sunny Sunday.

“I think it’s something you just factor in automatically, but it is something you have to make sure you’re on top of,” linebacker Logan Wilson said. “We’re here and it’s 37 degrees. It’s going to be warmer weather, where your body’s not necessarily used to it. You’ve got to make sure you’re staying hydrated because obviously hydration is important. You don’t want to have any cramps on the field.”

Cincinnati will be without cornerback Tony Brown (hamstring) and guard Alex Redmond (concussion), and three players are coming back from illness, including defensive tackle Christian Covington and cornerback Darius Phillips, who was cleared to practice Wednesday and could be activated to the 53-man roster. Wide receiver Mike Thomas (hamstring) is questionable but expected to play and defensive tackle Xavier Williams (back) also is questionable.