NFL Week 16 – Football on Christmas Day opened with a tale of two playoff hopefuls. On one side, the Green Bay Packers. Narrowly escaping multiple Any Given Sundays as the upsettee during their 3-6 start, the Packers had won three of their last five games to hold onto their playoff hopes. On the other, the Miami Dolphins. Once receiving praise as a dark horse Super Bowl contender boasting potential candidates for Coach of the Year, MVP, and Offensive Player of the Year, the Dolphins had lost three straight after potentially being “found out” by other teams. Two teams headed in opposite directions, fighting for their playoff lives. What better way to celebrate the holidays?
The Packers’ day offensively kicked off—no pun intended—to a great start thanks to returner Keisean Nixon. Nixon did not start consistently taking kick returns until Week 8 of this season, but he has dominated since taking over for Amari Rodgers. Nixon ranks second in the league with 27.5 yards per kickoff return. Nixon’s return prowess reached a new height Sunday, taking the first opening kick out of the end zone 93 yards, finally downed at the Miami 9-yard line .
A huge 94-yard return gets the @packers right into the redzone
— NFL (@NFL) December 25, 2022
While Green Bay squandered the drive, going three-and-out to settle for a field goal, the next return set Green Bay up for their next drive after Miami elected to squib the kickoff instead of testing Nixon’s ability. This, along with the Dolphins’ four turnovers, gave the Green Bay offense prime starting field position all afternoon. Three of the Packers six scoring drives started on Miami’s side of the 50-yard line. One more started on Green Bay’s 46-yard line . Only one Packers scoring drive—their touchdown drive out of halftime to tie the game—started at or behind their own 25.
The Packers offense has been rather unremarkable this season, at least by Aaron Rodgers-era Green Bay standards. Green Bay’s 8.2% offensive DVOA, while 10th in the league this season, would be their fifth-worst since Rodgers took over as starting quarterback in 2008. Rodgers himself is on pace to finish with a negative passing DVOA for the second time in his career while also averaging the fewest passing yards per game of his career, per Pro Football Reference.
That being said, the Packers had to lean on their passing attack to generate offense Sunday. Miami was able to hold the league’s best running back tandem to a combined 61 yards on 17 carries. Most of the Packers’ passing success on the day came from quick, short-yardage passing. That was good for some chunk yardage, and Rodgers is still able to fit a ball into a tight window. Rodgers connected on two big deep shots, looking like he still had an All-Pro receiver on his roster. One was a 42-yard pass to Allen Lazard, somewhat squandered by a poor play call on fourth-and-1 to kill the drive. The other went 31 yards to Marcedes Lewis to set up first-and-goal.
(Side note: shoutout to Marcedes Lewis in this game. One of the only players on the Packers roster who comes close to Rodgers in age, Lewis has served as a blocking tight end most of this season. This was his first multi-catch game since Week 15 of 2021, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Lewis’ aforementioned catch eventually set up a 1-yard touchdown for AJ Dillon, while his other catch went for his second touchdown on the year.)
Alright, now we can get to the turnovers.
A back-and-forth game between the Dolphins and Packers probably should never have been so. Miami’s defense, as stated, did a solid job shutting down the Green Bay rushing attack all game. The Dolphins bend-don’t-break secondary let up two deep shots but never truly broke. Kader Kohou, a rookie UDFA who has held his own in a starting role this season, notched his first interception of the year while the Dolphins secondary held Green Bay to a pedestrian 6.3 yards per pass attempt. Miami allowed just four passes of 20-plus yards and one run of 15-plus yards; both of Green Bay’s touchdowns came in goal-to-go situations.
Despite the quality performance Miami’s defense put together, Miami’s offense kept Green Bay in this game. The Packers recovered a Raheem Mostert fumble at midfield, then marched down to kick a field goal to make it a one-score game before half. Instead of leading by 10 with a chance to extend the lead before halftime, the Dolphins gave the Packers the opportunity to do the dreaded double-score—score before halftime, receive the kickoff to start the third quarter, then score again.
It’s hard to have a worse second half than the Dolphins offense had Sunday. The closest Miami came to scoring was when a 10-play, 45-yard drive ended in a missed field goal. After that, each of the Dolphins next three drives ended with a Tua Tagovailoa interception.
The Dolphins offense exposé has already been covered in Any Given Sunday. Green Bay was able to incorporate a lot of the elements that gave San Francisco and the Los Angeles Chargers success against Miami’s offense. The Packers generated the third-highest pressure rate Tagovailoa has faced this season while only blitzing twice. Green Bay relied heavily on Cover-2 and Cover-6 looks, mixing in some quarter-quarter-half formations. Green Bay also used some press man on occasion to throw off Tagovailoa’s timing.
The Packers didn’t start doing these out of nowhere in the middle of the game, though. Green Bay opened with this game plan, and Tagovailoa lit up the Packers defense early. Through the Dolphins’ first five drives, Tagovailoa was 8-for-11 for 221 passing yards and a touchdown. In the second half, he was just missing passes, either miscommunicating with his receivers or failing to read the defense post-snap.
Without one of those interceptions, the Dolphins had a decent chance of winning. Green Bay played a dangerous game by settling for field goals after both of those interceptions. The Packers spent a lot of the game attempting fourth-down conversions to extend offensive drives, converting on three of their five attempts. Honestly, the two misses could be chalked up to bad play calling. The first was a broken play that ended in a heave to Christian Watson, while the second was a fake punt at Green Bay’s own 20 that completely backfired. Despite that, Green Bay was willing to settle for a 26-yard field goal on fourth-and-3 from Maimi’s 8-yard line to extend their lead from three points to six. Green Bay refused to play aggressive to put the game away, but Miami kept coughing the ball up.
On the first pick, Tyreek Hill goes into motion and gets jammed at the line before getting into his route. While the timing was off, Tagovailoa just missed Hill high, and the ball fell into Jaire Alexander’s lap.
Here’s Alexander breaking down the interception if you want a good laugh.
Holy crap Jaire Alexander rules. pic.twitter.com/Z2nUr67ctb
— Kevin Clark (@bykevinclark) December 25, 2022
The second pick is a head-scratcher. Raheem Mostert is lined up in the slot. Tagovailoa’s processing on this is pretty much one read, keying in directly on Mostert running the seam. Tagovailoa looks to the flats, then throws the ball to where Mostert is supposed to be, practically before turning his head. Had Tagovailoa turned his head, he would have seen two things: 1) the nameplate on the back of Mostert’s unturned torso, and 2) De’Vondre Campbell lurking in the middle of the field, ready to pick the pass off. If this was the look, Tagovailoa either needs to take more care in placing this ball over Campbell’s head, or he needs to be in better timing with Mostert on the route.
The game-ending pick came off a look Tagovailoa had already seen that afternoon. Early in the second quarter, the Packers showed a similar look against this Dolphins formation. On that play, Tagovailoa quick-pumped to get the outermost cornerback to bite, freeing up Mike Gesicki for the 24-yard reception.
This time around, though, the Packers showed a different look, with Rasul Douglas dropping off the route he was lined up over to defend that pass to Gesicki. Maybe Tagovailoa thought that the same pass would be open as before. Maybe he thought Douglas was going to press on the receiver, meaning he didn’t need the extra pump. Regardless, it was a trust pass, something Tagovailoa has had problems with in this recent slump. At every turn, the Packers defense capitalized on those mistakes.
Green Bay is finally looking like the team pundits expected them to be in preseason. The offense, while taking a step back, is still top-10 in the league by DVOA. When the dynamic duo of Aaron Jones and Dillon are not clicking, Aaron Rodgers is still Aaron Rodgers, working with a passing offense that can do enough to get by. The star of the show during this three-game win streak, though, has been the defense. Green Bay has held their opponents under 20 points in three straight games, an achievement they only accomplished three times through the first 13 weeks of the season. The Packers have generated eight turnovers in their last three games and could have had more Sunday. Tagovailoa threw an extremely turnover-worthy shovel pass at one point in the second half, and the Dolphins had some fumble luck break their way as a botched snap fell right into Miami’s lap.
When Green Bay last graced Any Given Sunday after upsetting the Dallas Cowboys, this section of the piece closed with the following line: “It would be a bit of a longshot, but there is a path to the playoff still on the table for this Packers team.” That path is suddenly very clear. If Green Bay wins out, they just need one loss from the Washington Commanders to flip a 4-8 start of the season into a playoff berth. That’s much more doable than the average Christmas miracle.
By the DVOA
This was by far Green Bay’s best defensive performance of the season by DVOA, which will happen when you force turnovers on four of the last five drives of the game. Green Bay also posted their best single-game special teams DVOA since Week 14 of 2017.
If you’d like your DVOA fill of Tua Tagovailoa’s December slump, it takes center stage in this week’s Quick Reads. From the defensive end, Miami posted their best single-game defensive rushing DVOA of the season against Jones and Dillon, one of only two running back duos in the NFL to rank top-10 in both rushing DVOA and rushing DYAR. In fact, this goes down as Miami’s fifth-best defensive performance of the year by DVOA. Sunday’s game marks the second time during this four-game skid that the Dolphins posted a negative defensive DVOA and still lost.
The Dolphins Dilemma
The narrative for this section changed somewhat dramatically between when this game was first chosen for this week’s Any Given Sunday and its publishing. On Monday, Tagovailoa entered concussion protocol for the second time this season. A lot of Twitter Zapruders have speculated the play happened late in the second quarter, meaning Tagovailoa could have played the second half with concussion-like symptoms. Three times in as many months, Tagovailoa’s head health has come into question—rightfully so, when you consider the first two go-arounds. The first time against Buffalo, he could barely stand up straight and was put back into the game. The second time against Cincinnati, he exhibited fencing responses and was stretchered off the field.
For his sake, Tua Tagovailoa should be shut down for the rest of the year. Don’t take my word for it, take Aaron Rodgers’ on the Pat McAfee Show:
It’s probably time to maybe consider shutting it down. … As a competitor, it’s the last thing you want. But at some point, you do start thinking about your cognitive function later in life.
I like the kid, I think he’s a real good kid. I like the way he speaks and represents his team and goes about his business. … I just hope he gets the right help to make the right decision for him.
This is not fair to Tua. He should have never been put in this position, and that dates all the way back to the Buffalo game. Tagovailoa should be competing for a wild-card spot with his teammates. Evaluators of the game should be able to question Miami’s decline in offensive passing production or analyze Tua’s decision-making on pass plays. Those waters get murky when questions about cognitive health get thrown into the mix. Honest questions about Tagovailoa’s processing get tougher to answer.
The worst part is, aside from the interceptions, Tagovailoa looked good as a passer for a lot of that game. “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” I get it, when you end three straight drives with interceptions, it will never be seen that way, but it’s true. Some of it is still part of the Mike McDaniel offense opening up plays for him. On the long Jaylen Waddle touchdown, a jet motion and a fake pitch to the running back get the linebackers covering the middle of the field to bite. Jaire Alexander tries to pass off coverage to the high safety as Tagovailoa hits Waddle. The safety is already on a bad angle, made worse by the fact that he’s in the perfect position to be blocked backside by Tyreek Hill. Alexander is the last line of defense, but Hill is so fast that he speeds up to play interference, giving Waddle the window to make one move before finding paydirt.
Tagovailoa was also making good plays on his own, though, even after the alleged concussive moment. He was building a rapport with Waddle on routes working to the outside. Tagovailoa began to work the sidelines against two-high looks, either attempting the hole shots on passes like the play to Gesicki or on out-breaking routes. It certainly helps when you have a receiver like Waddle who can run whip routes like this.
These throws make the decisions on those interceptions more confusing and the Tagovailoa concussion dialogue more disheartening. It’s in the Dolphins’ best interest, as well as Tua’s, to sit him for the rest of the season, playoff berth be damned. There is no worse hell in football than quarterback purgatory. The Dolphins should know that better than anyone. They share a division with the Bills, Patriots, and Jets. They have seen what it’s like when a team finally has its guy (Bills), what it’s like to lose that guy (Patriots), and the endless carousel of mediocrity a team rides trying to find the guy (Jets).
Concussions are compounding injuries. After the first, a second becomes more likely, and the second concussion is often worse than the first. The more successive concussions in a short period, the more long-term damage they do. Luke Kuechly retired at the age of 28 despite being a seven-time All-Pro because of the concussions he sustained over years. People expressed concern about Kuechly’s health after sustaining three concussions in three years. This could be Tagovailoa’s third in a single season.
Prioritize the long-term health of Tua Tagovailoa over the short-term goal of a seventh-seed bid against either the Kansas City Chiefs or the Buffalo Bills. Who knows if this team was just figuring out the counterpunch to these defenses? Rather, who cares? Take it into the offseason, where your quarterback can rest, learn, and be better poised to attack the league next year. Organizationally, you know what you have in your new head coach, young defensive core, and long-term offensive acquisitions on the line and at receiver. Focus on the team’s future before jeopardizing your quarterback’s.