Dolphins top Saints on Monday Night Football

The Palm Beach Post is making this story available for free, hoping you will consider a subscription to south Florida’s best sports section. Right now, you can subscribe for only $30 a year.

With two more wins, the Dolphins would complete the improbable rise.

Miami won its seventh consecutive game, thrashing the Saints, 20-3, on “Monday Night Football” at The Superdome.

The result was never in question.

Miami’s defense was utterly dominant. Fourth-string Saints quarterback Ian Book never stood a chance.

New Orleans entered the game with 22 players on the NFL’s COVID-19 list.

It was an impossible task.

Miami (8-7) would be in the NFL Playoffs if the season ended Monday night.

If the Dolphins can win at Tennessee and at home against the Patriots, they will complete one of the greatest regular-season finishes in NFL history.

Miami is the first team to ever have seven straight losses and seven straight wins in the same season. Why not the Dolphins?

Game replay: A play-by-play look back at Dolphins-Saints

Great start for Dolphins: Ian Book’s 2nd NFL pass was an interception. Watch Dolphins’ Nik Needham return it for a touchdown

Taking the towel, drawing the flag: Why did Alvin Kamara push Christian Wilkins in the back of the head? The Dolphin stole his towel.

TUA’S SIGNIFICANT STRETCH

Before the game, NFL Hall of Famer Steve Young said on ESPN that he believes Tua Tagovailoa can be a “good” and “stabilizing” quarterback.

Young added: “Can he be great? I don’t know.”

That’s what the Dolphins hope to find out over the final three games of the season.

The stakes are raised. The defensive competition is much better.

In this game, Tagovailoa had his moments, but was not “great.”

Tagovailoa made a poor decision and a poor throw on a ball that was intercepted in the third quarter. He stepped up nicely into the pocket but forced a deep ball to Mack Hollins that was overthrown. Tua had Jaylen Waddle open.

Conversely, Tua later struck on a 40-yard pass play to Hollins that set up a touchdown run (technically a 1-yard pass) by Waddle for a 17-3 lead.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) throws a pass against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Look, the Dolphins offensive formula has been to limit mistakes and play to the strength of the team, which is the defense.

But Tagovailoa entered the game with only nine passing plays that resulted in gains of 30 or more yards all season, and four passing plays of more than 40 yards.

When the Dolphins make the eventual decision they will need to make about Tagovailoa, they will ponder this important factor: Does he have the arm to drive the ball down the field as often as is required of a championship quarterback?

In this game, Tua completed 73 percent of his passes and posted a 93.1 rating. He averaged 7.6 yards per attempt, a number boosted by the big throw to Hollins.

OFFENSIVE LINE WOES

The Dolphins had been makings some small steps in the right direction along the offensive line, particularly in pass protection.

Enter Cameron Jordan. And Marcus Davenport.

The Saints have some beasts along the defensive front and as could easily have been forecast, they gave Miami’s offensive line problems.

In the first half, Liam Eichenberg and Austin Jackson were each involved in a sack of Tua Tagovailoa. Later in the half, Jesse Davis was beaten for a sack.

Also in the first half, Eichenberg, Jackson and Michael Deiter were all called for holding.

The Dolphins were able to gain a small bit of offensive traction against subpar opponents, but sledding against New Orleans, Tennessee and New England always figured to be more of a challenge.

WADDLE, WADDLE

If and when Jaylen Waddle breaks Anquan Boldin’s record of 101 catches as a rookie, I propose he do the “Waddle Waddle” celebration, regardless of its a touchdown.

Most observers feel the “Waddle Waddle” should be reserved for touchdowns, but it says here that an abbreviated version of the maneuver should even be permitted for certain key third-down conversions.

Time after time after time, Tagovailoa went to Waddle on third down and he came through. Waddle had 10 catches for 92 yards.

Looks, Ja’Marr Chase and Kyle Pitts are Pro Bowlers as rookies.

And Waddle’s former teammate, DeVonta Smith, is having a very good season for the Eagles. But it cannot be said that drafting Waddle at 6 was a mistake. Instead, it can be said that moving down to 12 and back up to 6 from 3 was the right move.

Waddle is now second only to Boldin, and on pace to break his record.

Now, if Miami can only find a way to hit Waddle on a few deeper passes. And if Waddle can find a way to break a short slant for say, a 70-yard gain. It just hasn’t happened yet.

DOMINANT DEFENSE CONTINUES

Look, the Dolphins were facing the Saints’ fourth-string quarterback, Ian Book.

But they were as dominant as expected.

Miami defensive coordinator Josh Boyer did a nice job of mixing blitzes with what appeared to be blitzes and instead resulted in dropping defenders.

Emmanuel Ogbah and Jerome Baker picked up first-half sacks. So too did Xavien Howard and Raekwon Davis (half sack apiece). In the third quarter, it was Brandon Jones with yet another sack.

By midway through the fourth quarter, the Dolphins had racked up eight sacks.

The biggest defensive play of the first half was turned in by cornerback Nik Needham, who intercepted Book for a Pick 6 touchdown on Book’s first drive. A tipped pass by Andrew Van Ginkel contributed to the interception.

Miami Dolphins free safety Nik Needham (40) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Miami Dolphins free safety Nik Needham (40) celebrates after returning an interception for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the first half of an NFL football game Monday, Dec. 27, 2021, in New Orleans. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Ogbah is an unrestricted free agent after this season. The Dolphins will want to re-sign him. Needham, one of the lowest players on Miami and an absolute gem of a signing as an unrestricted free agent, is a restricted free agent.

It seems there is no way Miami lets Needham get away.

New Orleans began this game 0-for-12 on third down. Through three quarters, they had a total of 7 first downs. There was never a feeling they were in any way a threat.

DISCIPLINE KEY IN FINAL TWO

The Dolphins weren’t going to lose this game unless an incredibly unlikely series of events were to occur.

But Miami can’t beat themselves. Brian Flores hates that.

Flores has always prided his team on being the more disciplined team on the field.

On Monday, Brandon Jones had a roughing the passer penalty.

And Christian Wilkins actually drew an unsportsmanlike penalty but is fortunate he didn’t get a penalty himself.

Wilkins took Alvin Kamara’s towel and then Kamara hit Wilkins on the back o

This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: Miami Dolphins beat New Orleans Saints: 5 takeaways