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NFL Reset: Team rankings, Dolphins’ rise, Deshaun Watson’s looming return

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa leaves the field following the Dolphins’ victory Sunday over the Browns in Miami Gardens, Fla. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

It is time to begin regarding the Miami Dolphins as honest-to-goodness Super Bowl contenders and their quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, as a top league MVP candidate.

The Dolphins have won four straight games since Tagovailoa returned to their lineup after missing two games because of the concussion he suffered during a September game in Cincinnati. They lead the rugged AFC East with a record of 7-3, putting them a half-game ahead of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills. They’re only a half-game behind the Kansas City Chiefs for the AFC’s top playoff seed.

And Tagovailoa is perhaps the biggest reason.

“The whole team in the last month has taken an unbelievable jump in accountability, how they prepare and how they just go about doing their jobs,” Coach Mike McDaniel said after the Dolphins’ 39-17 triumph at home Sunday over the Cleveland Browns. “[Tagovailoa] is one of the main reasons that that is occurring. He has really come into his own skin in regards to being a leader at the quarterback position. Guys are rallying around him. He is demanding a standard and holding himself at a tremendous high standard.”

Tagovailoa has thrown 18 touchdown passes and only three interceptions; he is the NFL’s top-rated passer. The Dolphins lost their Sept. 29 game against the Bengals in which Tagovailoa was taken from the field on a stretcher and transported by ambulance to a nearby hospital. They lost to the Jets and the Minnesota Vikings in the two games he subsequently missed. They’re 7-0 in the games he has started and finished.

Tua Tagovailoa is suddenly thriving, and the Dolphins are relevant again

Wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle have been superb. But Tagovailoa has made it all work.

“Tua is playing very, very high-level football,” McDaniel said Sunday. “It’s phenomenal to watch him commit to the process. It’s the third game in a row where I didn’t feel a high or a low from him. … It’s about a team. And all of their production has to do with a team working in concert so that they can get those numbers.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Tagovailoa was regarded as the disappointment of the 2020 draft class of quarterbacks, having been outperformed by the Bengals’ Joe Burrow and the Los Angeles Chargers’ Justin Herbert. The Dolphins and their owner, Stephen Ross, were penalized before the season for tampering with Tom Brady, a possible replacement for Tagovailoa.

But Tagovailoa could become the first of the quarterbacks in his draft class to win an MVP award. And maybe he could be the first to win a Super Bowl, if the Dolphins continue to play at this level.

Top five teams

1. Chiefs
They’re on a roll now, with five victories in their past six games. They are the front-runners for the No. 1 seed in the AFC now that the Bills have struggled to two straight losses.
2. Vikings
The catch by Justin Jefferson was otherworldly. The OT win over the Bills was captivating. But the Vikings have little time to savor their accomplishments; the Cowboys, Patriots and Jets are up next.
3. Dolphins
The Dolphins can enjoy their bye week, and then they get to play the Texans Nov. 27. Things get serious after that, with the 49ers, Chargers and Bills on the schedule to begin December.
4. Eagles
Their loss to the Commanders was deserved. The offense committed four turnovers. The defense allowed a dozen third-down conversions. The Eagles sealed their fate by committing a silly penalty.
5. Giants
They aren’t going away. Brian Daboll has taken them past respectable, straight to legitimate playoff team. Saquon Barkley leads the league in rushing and resembles the player the Giants drafted him to be.

Watson nears return

Quarterback Deshaun Watson is moving closer to making his regular season debut for the Browns.

He became eligible Monday to resume practicing with the team, under the terms of his 11-game suspension for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy based on allegations of sexual misconduct.

Deshaun Watson suspended 11 games, fined $5 million under settlement

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said last month that Watson had, to that point, complied with the requirements for his prospective reinstatement, which included a stipulation that he undergo a professional evaluation and treatment plan. Watson is eligible to play in a Dec. 4 game at Houston against the Texans, who traded him to the Browns in March.

The Browns had hoped to play well enough with Jacoby Brissett filling in at quarterback to still have meaningful games following Watson’s return. It’s not looking particularly promising in that regard. Their record dropped to 3-6 with Sunday’s defeat to the Dolphins. They face the Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in their final two games before Watson is eligible to play.

Bottom five teams

28. Broncos
Nathaniel Hackett was hired because he’s a supposed offensive genius. But the Broncos have scored 20-plus points in a game only twice this season.
29. Jaguars
They arrive at their bye with six losses in their past seven games. They need to play better down the stretch to reinforce the notion that they’re making progress under Doug Pederson.
30. Browns
They have not managed to remain relevant on the field without Deshaun Watson.
31. Raiders
There was a head coach in the Raiders-Colts game Sunday who looked completely overmatched. It was Josh McDaniels, not Jeff Saturday.
32. Texans
It no longer appears there’s much chance that Davis Mills actually is the answer at QB.

Irsay, for now, gets last word

It was only one game, and there are no guarantees the coaching change Indianapolis Colts owner Jim Irsay made last week will continue to pay off as handsomely as it did Sunday.

But Irsay, at least for one week, was able to have the final word after so many observers criticized and mocked his decision to fire Frank Reich and hire Jeff Saturday, the team’s former all-pro center who never had coached above the high school level, as the Colts’ interim coach. The Colts beat the Raiders, 25-20, on Sunday in Las Vegas after making a midseason quarterback switch from Sam Ehlinger to Matt Ryan.

Irsay said in a video made just before he left Las Vegas that he, Ryan and General Manager Chris Ballard had given a game ball to Saturday.

“Hey, in the land of gambling … here we are,” Irsay said. “But to me it was never a gamble. I know Jeff has the right stuff, and he’s a very special guy, special leader.”

Three officiating controversies

This NFL season actually has been relatively devoid of major officiating controversies, other than an abbreviated burst of angst over some debatable roughing-the-passer calls. There were a trio of issues in the just-completed Week 10 games, although none erupted into a furor.

The league acknowledged the replay official in the booth for the Vikings’ epic overtime triumph Sunday over the Bills erred by not stopping the game for a review of a diving catch by Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis along the sideline in the final minute of regulation. Davis appeared to lose control of the ball on the turf, and the play should have been ruled an incompletion.

With the clock under two minutes, Vikings Coach Kevin O’Connell couldn’t challenge Davis’s catch. It was the responsibility of the replay official to stop the game and order the review. That didn’t happen, and the play was ruled a catch, helping the Bills to tie the score with a field goal in the closing seconds of regulation. Even so, the Vikings prevailed in the extra session, 33-30.

“It would have been reversed to an incomplete pass because he did not maintain control of the ball after he hit the ground and the ball touched the ground out of bounds,” Walt Anderson, the NFL’s senior vice president of officiating, told a pool reporter.

Sunday night, San Francisco 49ers Coach Kyle Shanahan questioned the ejection of Niners linebacker Dre Greenlaw for a hit on Herbert during a victory over the Chargers in Santa Clara, Calif.

The league’s officiating department in New York ordered the ejection after the officials penalized Greenlaw for lowering his head to deliver the hit. It was legal for Greenlaw to hit Herbert helmet to helmet, given that Herbert was running with the ball at the time and therefore was not regarded as a defenseless player, under the rules. But the technique of lowering the head to deliver a hit is illegal, and, according to Anderson, the league also ruled the hit was late.

“He was already down by contact,” Anderson told a pool reporter. “That certainly plays into taking a look at the actions taken by the defender. … [We] felt like the actions he took were flagrant in nature, and that was the reason for the disqualification.”

The Philadelphia Eagles’ loss Monday night to the Washington Commanders included a missed face mask call against the Commanders as Eagles tight end Dallas Goedert fumbled. That is not reviewable.

The Eagles had plenty of other issues in a mistake-filled performance; the missed call did not necessarily determine the outcome. Still, it was the sort of glaring officiating blunder that intensifies efforts — and perhaps prompts offseason rule-change proposals — to make all personal fouls (or all calls) reviewable.