Well, now that we know what this team looks like when it plays well, a victory over the Jets giving us a crystal clear picture, the question begs to be asked:
Can they make it two in a row?
That's what this Sunday in Indianapolis is all about. Seeing if the Dolphins can duplicate, or come close to it, all those positives that surfaced in that eight-point victory over the Jets. Seeing if the confidence they gained and the improvement they made can carry over against a winning team on the road. As sweet as that victory was, it was just one game. Do it again and it proves that what we saw against the Jets was no aberration, but a clear indication of what this team is capable of doing.
Granted, the challenge this Sunday is a daunting one. Since that victory over the Jets, the Dolphins learned they had lost their top receiver Preston Williams to a knee injury and their starting running back Mark Walton to a four-game suspension. That's tough to overcome, but if this group has showed us anything over the first half of the season, it is a resiliency in the face of some difficult times.
That resiliency will now be tested once again with those two playmakers missing and with the adjustments that have to be made.
"It's always been about the next man up," said coach Brian Flores.
What the victory over the Jets did perhaps more than anything else was provide a clear blueprint for success, a blueprint that includes some long touchdown drives on offense, some big third down stops on defense and, in general, a team that just doesn't beat itself with turnovers and penalties.
That's exactly the type of performance they'll need to make it two in a row.
Much of whatever success they enjoy will continue to fall on the shoulders of quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "As I go," he says, "so goes this offense."
Fitzpatrick was at his season-best against the Jets. He probably needs to play even better against a talented Colts' defense while, at the same time, incorporating players like running back Kalen Ballage and receivers Albert Wilson and Jakeem Grant, into the offense.
The confidence level of these players has clearly risen since the victory over the Jets. In truth, though, it's been evident even longer than that.
"The last three weeks of practice there's been a shift in attitude of guys really working hard and being really focused," said Fitzpatrick. "It's a fun group to work with. There's a good energy out there."
Makes sense when you remember how close the Dolphins came to winning those previous two games at Buffalo and Pittsburgh. Even with all the roster changes that happen on a weekly basis, the core of this team has been in tact for a while, certainly long enough to develop a level of chemistry and cohesiveness.
Now the test is doing it against a winning team on the road, a team in the Colts that has won three of its last four games including an attention-getting victory over the Chiefs in Kansas City before Patrick Mahomes was injured.
How do they pull it off? My five keys to the game will get you started:
- Remember the name Marlon Mack: You can easily make the case that without the injured T.Y. Hilton in the lineup Mack is the Colts' most talented and effective offensive weapon. He has rushed 159 times, averaging 4.3 yards a carry. The next running back has carried it just 24 times. If Mack gets going, it opens things up for the rest of the offense. The Dolphins did a decent job against Le'Veon Bell last Sunday. They need to be just as good against Mack.
- Find a running game: This is imperative against a defense as talented as Indy. We've already talked about the loss of Walton. Now it's about who steps up. Ballage figures to get the first crack at it. I'm interested to see what might evolve with a pair of rookies: Myles Gaskin and Patrick Laird. Bottom line: The Dolphins can't win this game relying only on Fitzpatrick. There has to be some balance.
- Win the turnover battle: There isn't a more important statistic than this one. It is no coincidence that the only time the Dolphins haven't turned it over this season is the only time they won a game. Truth is, they aren't talented enough or deep enough to overcome turnovers and while they can certainly use some takeaways of their own – having produced just four so far this season – they simply can't make it easy for the Colts by being overly generous.
- Find an edge on special teams: I've long believed that this could be the strength of this team though we have yet to see it on a consistent basis. What the Dolphins need are some big plays, maybe one of those coast-to-coast returns by Grant that can so quickly change the complexion of a game? But it doesn't have to be that. It can be a big day for placekicker Jason Sanders, a field changing punt by Matt Haack or, who knows, maybe even a surprise onside kick. Anything to get that edge.
- Win the fourth quarter: Even in their victory over the Jets, they were outscored 3-2 in the fourth quarter and now for the season they've been outscored 79-22. This is not the recipe you need to win in this league. Those three second-quarter touchdowns against the Jets were impressive as was the Dolphins' ability to hold on late in the game. But at some point you've got to win the fourth quarter, show some kind of a finishing kick, and wouldn't this Sunday against the Colts be a great time to do it?