MIAMI GARDENS, Florida − As the rest of the NFC crumbles around them, the Green Bay Packers gave themselves a big Christmas gift Sunday afternoon.
The Packers left South Florida with a 26-20 win against the Miami Dolphins, giving tangible life to what up to this point has been long-shot playoff hopes. Their win came on the same holiday weekend Washington, Seattle, Detroit and the New York Giants – four teams they’re chasing in the seedings – all lost.
It was the Packers third straight win, but this one felt different. After beating the Chicago Bears and Los Angeles Rams, the Packers merely took advantage of two teams among the worst in the NFL. The Dolphins were fighting for their playoff lives, sitting in the AFC’s seventh and final postseason spot when the day began.
BOX SCORE:Packers 26, Dolphins 20
The Packers pulled into a tie with the Seahawks and Lions at 7-8, a half game behind the Commanders (7-7-1). If they win their final two games – both at home against the Minnesota Vikings and Lions – they are likely to win head-to-head tiebreakers against Seattle and Detroit. They would need the Commanders to lose one of their final two games against the Cleveland Browns and Dallas Cowboys.
Can’t ask for much more heading into the new year.
The grinch that stole Christmas
To mitigate the Dolphins explosive offense, the Packers were going to need to force a couple of holiday turnovers. The problem: takeaways have not been this defense’s strength all season. The Packers entered Sunday with a minus-3 turnover margin. A big reason was because the defense had only 16 takeaways in 14 games, tied for 19th in the NFL. Jarran Reed got a big takeaway before halftime, stripping Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert and recovering the fumble when Miami was near midfield. Backed up in their own territory, Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa airmailed an open receiver and hit cornerback Jaire Alexander in the chest. Alexander picked it to set up a field goal that gave the Packers a 23-20 edge, their first lead of the game. A drive later, with the Dolphins in field-goal range, linebacker De’Vondre Campbell stepped in front of a Tagovailoa pass intended for Mostert and intercepted it. The dagger came when Rasul Douglas intercepted Tagovailoa’s third pass of the game inside the 2-minute warning, sealing the win. The Packers won the turnover battle Sunday 4-1, a big reason they stole a win in Miami.
Tua Tagovailoa’s Christmas cannon
It’s a good thing the Packers kept stealing from Tua Tagovailoa. He still got plenty of his. Joe Barry ominously said the Packers would need to keep Dolphins receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in front of them and tackle well when they got the football, but those are two things on his Christmas wish list that didn’t happen. Tagovailoa completed 9-of-12 passes for 229 yards in the first half alone, an astonishing 25.4 yards per completion. His second completion of the day, on the Dolphins’ first play of their second drive, was an 84-yard touchdown that included missed tackles against Rasul Douglas and Jaire Alexander. In the second quarter, tight end Mike Gesicki caught a 24-yard pass to convert first-and-20, and Hill caught a 52-yard pass two plays later to set up the Dolphins with first-and-goal from the 1-yard line. He finished 16-of-25 for 310 yards, averaging almost 20 yards per completion. Tagovailoa dropped bomb after bomb on the Packers secondary. If he wasn’t throwing to Packers defenders, they were helpless to do much about it.
A holly, jolly play-action pass
Aaron Rodgers might not have the consistent accuracy he once did, but there’s one thing the Packers quarterback might still do better than anyone in the NFL. Rodgers showed it on the Packers first touchdown Sunday, a 1-yard pass to tight end Marcedes Lewis on fourth-and-goal. With the Dolphins expecting a power run at the goal line, Rodgers flashed an action fake. Miami’s defense bit hard on the run, leaving Lewis wide open in the end zone for the easy score. Rodgers later converted a third-down pass to Christian Watson with the same fake action. If the Packers passing game has not always been explosive this season, Rodgers’ handling of the football can still make it deceptive.
Injuries coming to town
The Packers had successfully avoided significant injuries the past few weeks, but that became a problem again in Miami. Keisean Nixon opened the game with a 93-yard kickoff return that set up a short field goal, but he left midway through because of a groin injury that limited him in practice this week. Romeo Doubs, in his second game back from a high-ankle sprain, replaced Nixon as kick returner. Christian Watson had a solid first half with six catches for 49 yards, but a hip injury forced him to miss the second. Yosh Nijman did not return after leaving midway through with a shoulder injury, replaced by Royce Newman. Perhaps most notable, the Packers were forced to manage Aaron Jones’ role because of an ankle injury. Jones was seldom used in the first half, but the Packers leaned on him more as the game passed. He finished with 25 yards on six carries.
Feeling a lot like Christmas
With more than one Santa Claus in the stands, the Packers were greeted with nothing like the typical tropical weather expected in South Florida. At kickoff, the temperature was 47 degrees. It was the second-coldest home game in Dolphins history, behind only a 40-degree day against the Kansas City Chiefs in 1989. That meant the Packers wore their white, traditional road uniforms in Miami, instead of their green jerseys. The Dolphins usually force the Packers to wear green because the darker fabric absorbs more heat, but there was no heat Sunday. It had to feel like ideal weather conditions for a team accustomed to much colder temperatures this time of year.