December arrives on Sunday and with it comes the final stretch of five games beginning with the Philadelphia Eagles at Hard Rock Stadium. The question that now must be answered: Have the Dolphins saved their best for last?
Every Dolphins coach I have covered has stressed the importance of December and how this is when you can properly measure growth. The rookies, in reality, are no longer rookies. The newness of a first-year coaching staff has long ago subsided. The roster and the depth chart are pretty well set. The ingredients are in place to play at your absolute best, whatever that level might be.
This is the challenge facing the Dolphins beginning Sunday against the Eagles. Find another level. A better level. A December level. Take all the good we have seen at times this season, certainly in the two straight victories, and prove they weren't an aberration. Duplicate it. Build on it. If the playoff contenders can find another gear so too can the Dolphins.
No doubt the injuries have taken their toll. No doubt this roster is always a work in progress. But the core of this team has been intact for a while now and that provides a measure of optimism for this run of five December games.
By now we know the formula. It's got to start with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick limiting his mistakes, spreading the ball around, converting some third downs and all the while looking for that long-distance connection. It's got to continue with a defense forcing some turnovers and causing confusion with a variety of looks. And it certainly has to include playing well enough early to make it matter late.
All the things this team can't do very well have been well documented over the course of the first 11 games. What the Dolphins need to do now is accentuate what they can do well and try to do it a little better.
The Eagles, meanwhile, come in at 5-6 and in the thick of the NFC East race, only one game behind Dallas. This is an important game for them. They have dropped two in a row, both close games to excellent teams, first losing 17-10 to the Patriots and then 17-9 to the Seahawks. Both those scores scream of how well the Eagles defense has been playing. You know they will come in Sunday with a sense or urgency. It is incumbent on the Dolphins to match that urgency.
I fully anticipate a close game. After winning those two straight games, the Dolphins have struggled against both the Bills at home and the Browns on the road. But this team has shown a promising level of resiliency all season and now is the time they need to show it again. With three of the last four games on the road, it only underlines the importance of Sunday's home game.
What should you focus on? My five keys are a good way to start.
- Don't let quarterback Carson Wentz be the story: The Eagles offense has been hit hard by injuries, but the one constant has been the play of Wentz who has thrown for 17 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He in so many ways dictates how well the Eagles play and it is up to the Dolphins defense to make Wentz uncomfortable with a combination of pressure from the pass rush and solid play in the secondary.
- Keep a close eye on Zach Ertz: The talented tight end leads the Eagles in receptions and yardage and it isn't even close. Ertz has 67 receptions for 712 yards, which is almost double the receptions and more than double the yards of his nearest teammate. Wentz looks to Ertz early and often. A key third down? A red zone target? It'll be a tough matchup for the Dolphins safeties, but one they must win to realistically have a chance in this game.
- Somehow find a running game: We're not looking for dominance here, just a little balance, something to take some pressure off the passing game and provide some credibility for play-action fakes. This area has struggled all season. There are no easy answers. Kalen Ballage has gotten most of the carries, but we should expect to see more of rookies Patrick Laird and Myles Gaskin over the final month of the season. Certainly the line needs to block better, but a few broken tackles might be just what this offense needs.
- Get some big plays from special teams: This is an area the Dolphins clearly won in their only two victories and it remains an important part of any success they enjoy. A big kick by Jason Sanders? A field-titling punt by Matt Haack? Maybe one of those gadget plays we've already seen quite a bit of this season? Doesn't matter where it comes from, the Dolphins need to find an edge on special teams that can prove to be the difference.
- How about a first quarter lead: The Dolphins showed us the way you don't want to start against the Browns, falling behind 28-0 in the second quarter. If there was a common denominator in the two victories it is this team's ability to play well early, establish some consistency and build off of that during the game. The firepower just isn't there for this offense to play from behind. Look up at the scoreboard Sunday at the end of the first quarter. It'll tell us plenty about the Dolphins chances.