|Dolphins, Buccaneers meet in delayed game|
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Sunday's game in which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers visit the Miami Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium was supposed to be the season opener for both teams on Sept. 10.
But Hurricane Irma had other plans.
The game was postponed until this Sunday, but now everything has changed. At the time the game was originally scheduled, optimism was high for the Dolphins, who were coming off a surprising playoff run in 2016 in which Miami won nine of its final 12 games.
It was Miami's first playoff appearance since 2008, and the Dolphins were planning on a much deeper run this season.
Instead, Miami (4-5) has floundered, losing its past three games -- all in prime time -- by a combined score of 112-45. That included an embarrassing 40-0 loss at the Baltimore Ravens.
"I'm lost," Dolphins defensive end Cam Wake told The Miami Herald after Miami lost to the Carolina Panthers 45-21 on Monday night. "This is not acceptable."
Tampa Bay (3-6) also entered this season with high hopes. The Bucs finished 9-7 last season, their first winning year since 2010. HBO recognized Tampa Bay's improvement, picking the Bucs as the 2017 team for their "Hard Knocks" series.
But after a promising 2-1 start, Tampa Bay fell apart during a five-game losing streak that was snapped last weekend in an ugly 15-10 win over the New York Jets.
The Bucs won with backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is once again expected to start Sunday. Starter Jameis Winston has a shoulder injury and will miss his second straight game.
Fitzpatrick, who made his NFL debut in 2005, is 5-5 in his career against Miami.
Defensively, the Bucs will likely be without two starters. Defensive end Noah Spence is on injured reserve, and cornerback Vernon Hargreaves (hamstring) is questionable. Backup cornerback Robert McClain (hamstring) is also questionable.
Miami has one significant player who is questionable for Sunday -- run-stopping defensive end William Hayes.
But the Dolphins have 10 players on injured reserve, including many who would have been or could have been starters, such as quarterback Ryan Tannehill, right tackle Ja'Wuan James, guard Anthony Steen, linebackers Raekwon McMillan and Koa Misi, cornerback Tony Lippett and safety Nate Allen.
All those injuries have taken a toll. And this was supposed to be the bye week for both teams, a fact that was not lost on Bucs coach Dirk Koetter.
"You don't know the ramifications until you get here," Koetter said when asked how losing the bye week will affect the teams. "I'm sure both teams would prefer to have a few days off, especially since we both have so many guys banged up."
The Dolphins, as Koetter pointed out, "have the added inconvenience" of having played Monday night, giving them one fewer rest day as compared with Tampa Bay. But the Dolphins have the advantage of being home and -- in the final analysis -- this game is even, according to Las Vegas oddsmakers.
Tampa Bay, though, should get a big boost Sunday when wide receiver Mike Evans returns from a one-game suspension that was imposed for his role in an altercation on Nov. 5 at the New Orleans Saints.
Evans said he was frustrated when he shoved Saints cornerback Marshon Lattimore from behind.
"If we were winning, I don't think I do that," Evans told TampBay.com. "But we were losing 30-3. The game was out of reach ... and I made a bone-headed play.
"I will never do that again. I like playing with passion and effort. But I've got to be calmer. I've got to be smarter."
Evans hopes to help an offense that ranks 22nd in the NFL, averaging 19.2 points.
Miami's offense has struggled even more, ranking last in the NFL, averaging just 15.2 points.
The Dolphins' lack of explosiveness is best personified by talented wide receiver Jarvis Landry, who leads the NFL in receptions with 61 but ranks last in the league in average yards per reception (7.7).
Dolphins coach Adam Gase, who has ripped his team in public at times this season, seems to be trying a different approach now.
"This group is pretty good at moving on," he said. "We lost our way, just for a minute. We need to regroup. We have a lot of time left. It's not like any team is running away. We have a lot of time left. It's not a total disaster everywhere."