The record over the past two months screams that the Miami Dolphins have gotten better since the start of the season.
We're about to find out how much better.
Because they're playing the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots.
On the road.
In late December.
In a game the Patriots probably need to win to get the No. 2 seed and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.
Could the challenge be much more imposing than that?
"We're going to have to be at our best," said coach Brian Flores.
When they last met, the Dolphins may have been at their worst. It was mid-September and the Patriots were, well, the Patriots, winning 43-0 at Hard Rock Stadium and looking every bit as dominant as the score would indicate.
But that was before the complexion of this season changed, before Ryan Fitzpatrick found his groove and before many of these players even arrived on the scene. Now the Dolphins believe they are a different team, a more efficient team, a more together team and with a 4-4 record over the past two months far more capable of giving the Patriots the type of game they couldn't back in September.
"We've made a lot of improvement in a lot of different areas," Flores said about the change in his team. "For me it's preparation, the way we practice, the way we meet, the way we walk through. That's the crux of the foundation of where I feel we've gotten better."
It is clear by now how this Dolphins' team can win games. They need a strong performance from Fitzpatrick and certainly a few big plays from DeVante Parker and Mike Gesicki. They need a good start, they need to be bold and creative in their play calling and they need to minimize mistakes like turnovers and penalties. It isn't very complicated. Now it's about making it happen against a top-tier team on the road.
The standings say this game is more important to the Patriots than the Dolphins. They can lock up a first-round bye. They can make sure the only potential road game they play is in Baltimore. They can finish with a 12-4 record. But this season for the Dolphins has never been as much about who they are playing as how they are playing.
"We're focused on ourselves and what we need to do to be successful," said Fitzpatrick. "That's been our mindset all along."
And with that, my five keys to the game:
- It always starts with containing Tom Brady: Give him time and he'll pick you apart. We've seen that play out far too many times over the years. But apply some pressure, make him uneasy, give him reason to pause and you've got a chance to make some plays on defense. Both the pass rush and the play of the secondary has remained an ongoing concern this season. Both need to step up against an offense predicated so much on its quarterback having the time to throw.
- Beware of Julian Edelman: You know Brady is going to look in his direction more than anyone else. You know when the Patriots need a big play, maybe a key third down conversion, it'll be Edelman they'll likely call upon. He leads the Patriots with 97 receptions, which are 28 more than the next receiver. The Dolphins will need a group effort to contain him. We might see some double teams. We may see some zone. "He just keeps coming at you," said Dolphins defensive coordinator Patrick Graham. This matchup could very well be where the game is decided.
- Let Fitzpatrick do his thing: That means keeping him upright in the pocket, allowing him time to survey the field and perhaps putting together one final FitzMagic performance to cap what has been a very good season for the 15-year veteran. He was outstanding last Sunday against the Bengals, throwing for four touchdowns. He needs to be just as good against the Patriots. The current starting offensive line has been together for a few weeks now. It is incumbent on them to give Fitzpatrick the time he needs.
- A strong finish for DeVante Parker: This has been his breakout season and he's been doing it just about every Sunday. You know Bill Belichick's defense likes to take away the opponent's top offensive option and that means Parker will receive special attention, probably from All-Pro cornerback Stephen Gilmore. Regardless, I expect Fitzpatrick to look Parker's way early and often. A couple of touchdown catches would mean so much to this offense.
- Some semblance of a running game: By now it is painfully obvious that the running game will be the one of the main issues addressed this offseason. While it's a credit to Fitzpatrick that he comes into Sunday's game leading the team in rushing, you'd rather a running back have that distinction than a 37-year-old quarterback. But between a trade, a suspension and a major injury, the Dolphins have been starting Patrick Laird, an undrafted rookie. If they have any real hope of pulling off an upset, the running game has to be some kind of factor.