How far have the Dolphins really come over the past month? We're about to find out.
Four games ago, the Dolphins lost to the Buffalo Bills 31-21 after leading 14-9 late into the third quarter. Then it all unraveled. A turnover followed by a long Bills' touchdown drive relinquished a lead the Dolphins would never take back. It was the sixth of seven straight losses to open the season, the Dolphins getting outscored 22-7 in that fourth quarter.
But now the landscape has dramatically changed. The Dolphins have won two in a row, first beating the Jets at home then the Colts on the road. They have played better defense, forced more turnovers, gotten some timely field goals, fed off the energy and toughness of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and generally have shown improvement in every phase.
Now comes the perfect measuring stick to gauge that improvement in Sunday's return matchup against the Bills at Hard Rock Stadium. If this team has really turned the proverbial corner, if what we saw the past two Sundays is sustainable, then we'll certainly get a clear indication of that against the Bills. They are 6-3 and playoff hungry. If the Dolphins can win this game, if they can make it three-in-a-row, this would serve as undeniable proof of the growth of this team, certainly given what happened in Buffalo only a month ago.
It is likely, though, they'll have to play much better than they did against both the Jets and Colts, the latter playing the Dolphins without starting quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Bills are much the same team they were four games ago with a top tier defense and an excellent young quarterback in Josh Allen, who can beat you with his feet as much as his right arm. They have lost two of their last three so there is a sense of urgency heading into this game.
The urgency for the Dolphins, meanwhile, is to continue this run of solid performances, and to further demonstrate they are no longer the same team that began the season with four lopsided losses.
After these last two victories, we now have a far better understanding of this team's recipe for success. It starts with Fitzpatrick making plays passing and running, spreading the ball around, coming up with some big third-down conversions and trying to make up for a rushing attack that just hasn't produced. It continues with a vastly improved defense, stepping up against the run and getting some timely turnovers from the secondary, and is capped off by a team that doesn't beat itself with excessive penalties.
This is how the Dolphins have gotten to where they are. There is no great mystery to it. It's Fitzpatrick and this defense. We saw signs of this in the first half of that game in Buffalo a month ago. But they were only signs. Now we have seen an ability to play well over most of four quarters and that's what it will take Sunday against the Bills.
"I think we've come together as a team, but I think every team has," said coach Brian Flores. "There's just some situations now where we're playing the team game better. I think we're moving in that direction. We still have a long way to go, and again this is a very, very tough opponent."
You know both teams will change things up from the first meeting. That's just the way it works in this league. But even though some of the looks might be different, the keys to victory will remain largely the same. Let's take a closer look:
- Win the turnover battle for the third straight game: It is has turned out to be the most telling statistic for this team. Don't beat yourself on offense, get some takeaways on defense and you're probably going to win the game. They did it against both the Jets and Colts and it figures to be just as important on Sunday.
- Don't let QB Josh Allen outside the pocket: He is one of the league's best running quarterbacks not named Lamar Jackson or Russell Wilson. Allen has already rushed for six touchdowns, more than all of the Bills' running backs combined. It is imperative that the Dolphins keep him in check and avoid some of those third down scrambles that have proven to be so damaging in the past.
- Get something out of the running game: There has been little balance to the Dolphins offense this season, the only consistent running coming from Fitzpatrick and that's more out of necessity than design. Kalen Ballage has been getting most of the carries and his 2.1-yard per carry average is indicative of the rushing struggles of this team. Someone's got to step up, if not Ballage than maybe rookie running backs Patrick Laird or Myles Gaskin.
- End this third-quarter drought: The point production says everything you need to know. The Dolphins have scored three points in the third quarter all season. The opposition has scored 63. This is a troubling trend, and somewhat baffling as well. But it can't persist, not if the Dolphins want to build on what they've already accomplished.
- Will Jason Sanders sizzle again? He was the difference last Sunday in Indianapolis, his two long-distance field goals turning a 12-10 deficit into a 16-12 victory. With this team now playing close games, it makes Sanders that much more important. Give him a shot at a game-winner Sunday against the Bills and I certainly like his chances.