Dolphins, Packers meet on Christmas with playoff aspirations

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) scores a touchdown after recovering a fumble during the first half of an NFL football game against the Los Angeles Chargers Sunday, Dec. 11, 2022, in Inglewood, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) (Jae C. Hong, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Back in November, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said Miami’s goal was to play in meaningful games in December and January.

“When you are in those months playing meaningful football, it is something unlike any other style of football that exists,” McDaniel said. “The beginning of the season pales in comparison to that environment.”

The Dolphins and the Green Bay Packers will have that type of experience when they meet on Christmas Day. Both teams are eyeing the postseason, but their scenarios to get there are quite different.

The Dolphins (8-6) will make the playoffs if they win their last three games — or just their last two, against division foes New England and the New York Jets. Miami has lost three straight, though, and wants to begin its playoff push by beating Green Bay.

Standing in their way is four-time MVP Aaron Rodgers.

“We’re about to play Aaron Rodgers, who has been in the league for years and arguably one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play,” safety Jevon Holland said. “So what more do you have to focus on? This is a huge challenge, especially for me. ... Playoffs are playoffs. I’ve never been to the playoffs so I wouldn’t know.”

The Packers (6-8) likely need to win their last three games to make the postseason. Even if they win out, they’re not guaranteed to make it.

“This is a really good football team that we’re going against,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said. “Obviously they’re very hungry. They’ve got a lot at stake. We’ve got a lot at stake, and it should be a playoff-type game.”

McDaniel and LaFleur know each other well, having worked together as assistants with Houston, Washington and Atlanta.

LaFleur said he sees some advantage in playing against a familiar coach.

“I think it leads to some creativity, quite honestly,” he said, “because you might see the same concept that you have that gets ran and it’s like, OK, what wrinkle can I throw off of this, so I think there’s pluses and minuses to everything.”

THE GESICKI CONUNDRUM

One of the more surprising stories of the Dolphins’ season is how little Mike Gesicki, one of the most athletic tight ends in the NFL, has been involved in the offense.

After having career highs of 73 receptions for 780 yards in 2021, Gesicki has caught 25 passes for 274 yards this year. He has only been targeted five times in the past four games and has just one catch for 5 yards during that span.

“I’ve made plays in this league for a long time and I’ve proven the player I am,” Gesicki said. “There’s probably defensive coordinators that are going in and watching our film and have to put in time — or at least used to have to put in time — to ‘How are we going to affect the game plan with 88 out there?’ In my opinion, yeah, I could help, but I’m just going to go about it in the most professional way I can.”

McDaniel said it’s a “failure to some degree” that he hasn’t gotten Gesicki more involved.

DISAPPOINTING DEFENSE

McDaniel said Miami’s defense is not playing to its capabilities.

“I think any person in the locker room and every coach on the coaching staff would say no,” he said. “Just because they really believe in each other.”

The Dolphins rank 27th in opponent third-down conversion percentage, and they rank near the bottom of the league in passing defense (27th), scoring defense (26th) and red-zone defense (25th).

A CHEETAH CHRISTMAS

Dolphins receiver Tyreek Hill has never played on Christmas Day and has a few holiday-themed celebrations planned for Sunday.

“It’s gonna be a fun show,” Hill said. “I’m gonna give people something to watch. It’s gonna be very entertaining.”

Hill has 109 catches for 1,529 and seven TDs this season.

NIXON’S RETURNS

Green Bay’s Keisean Nixon wasn’t even the Packers’ main kick returner at the start of the season, but he now has eight kickoff returns of 30-plus yards and three of 50-plus yards to lead the NFL in both categories. Nixon has returned at least one kickoff 30-plus yards in each of his last four games, the longest such streak by any Packer since Sam Shields did it in 2010.

Packers coach Matt LaFleur acknowledged after Green Bay’s Monday night victory over the Los Angeles Rams that he should have made Nixon the main kick returner earlier in the season.

“In all my 18 years, I’ve never once, until tonight, seen an opposing team’s kicker kick away from one of our returners on purpose,” Rodgers said after the Rams game. “That’s fun. That’s pretty incredible.”

CLIMATE CHANGE

The Packers played Monday night with temperatures of 15 degrees — and the wind chill measured at 7 — just before the opening kickoff.

They’re preparing for a much different situation Sunday, though it won’t be quite as warm as usual in Miami. The forecast calls for highs in the mid-50s.

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