At a press conference earlier this week, Brian Flores held up his thumb and pointer finger and separated them by the slightest of margins.
"A lot of plays," he said, "come down to this much."
The message was heard. The Dolphins have been that close much of this season to producing a play that could change the outcome of a game in their favor. Sure, they have made their share of those plays as well. But Flores wanted to make it perfectly clear that the difference between a 3-10 team that will face the Giants Sunday at MefLife Stadium and one with a far better record can be as small as that space between his fingers.
"That's the National Football League," Flores went on. "When we talk about details, when we talk about alignments and we talk about reading your keys and about fundamentals and communication, that's why we do that because at the end of the day (holding up his fingers again), it's that much."
The challenge over the final three games, beginning Sunday against the Giants, is to show enough improvement to start making more of the plays that can go either way. Plays like safety Steven Parker just barely missing an interception late in last Sunday's game against the Jets, his miss resulting in a catch and a big play that got the Jets in field goal position.
Since the Dolphins became competitive in just every game after the growing pains of the first month of the season, similar scenarios have played out Sunday after Sunday. A missed tackle. A dropped pass. A holding penalty at the most inopportune time. Make one of those tackles, catch one of those passes, avoid one of those penalties and that could be the difference Flores is talking so much about.
It's the mindset he wants his team to have as this season draws to a close, a mindset that has far more to do with how they are playing than who they are playing. It tells you how far this team has come that the difference is a matter of inches. It also tells you how far they still have to go.
Sunday's game is against a team that has struggled even more than the Dolphins. The Giants are 2-11 and have lost nine straight. But nobody on the Dolphins wants to hear about anyone else's problems. They have plenty of issues to deal with all by themselves.
Like a wide receiver group that has been hit hard by injuries, both DeVante Parker and Albert Wilson questionable for this game while in concussion protocol. Like at running back where undrafted rookie Patrick Laird, once fourth string, has now emerged as the best option. Like on the offensive line that has had nine different starting combinations in the first 13 games. Like in the defensive backfield, now down to just four experienced players.
But even with all of the above, the Dolphins show up every Sunday and play with a competitive fire that you just have to admire. As long as they can continue that, and as long as Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to do what he does best, they're going to have a realistic chance to win.
"We're a bunch of fighters," said Flores.
And with that, my five keys to the game:
- Don't let Saquon Barkley break loose: It hasn't been the most productive of seasons for the Giants' star running back. Certainly a high ankle sprain has been a contributing factor. But he's healthy now and you know he's going to touch the ball at least 20 times. The rushing defense showed improvement last Sunday against the Jets. It had better take things to another level against Barkley.
- Relocate the red zone efficiency: The Dolphins were one of the league's most efficient red zone teams. Until the Jets' game, that is when they went oh-for-six. As proficient as Jason Sanders has been, field goals need occasional touchdowns. The challenge Sunday is how many of the top red zone options will be available? Is there another trick play on the horizon?
- Another big game from Fitzpatrick: Play off your strengths. In this case it is the play-making ability of Fitzpatrick, either taking off and running, which he does so well, creating a big play or converting a key third down. Fitzpatrick is the identity of this offense, undoubtedly the difference maker. He needs to be that difference maker on Sunday.
- Win Special Teams: I know I've harped on this all season, but it remains one of the strengths of this team, yes even without long distance threat Jakeem Grant. Look when the Dolphins have played well. Look when they've won. The common denominator has been an important special teams moment. Maybe it's a kick. Maybe it's a punt. Maybe it's a turnover. But if history is an indicator, it needs to happen for the Dolphins to win this game.
- Get an early lead: The Dolphins have been outscored 95-34 in the first quarter this season, the greatest discrepancy of any quarter. They have worked hard on this, trying to create an early sense of urgency. But the results just haven't been there. With all the injuries on offense, playing from behind clearly isn't the best option. But give them a lead, let Fitzpatrick pick and choose, make the Giants the ones playing catch-up, and the chances to leave MetLife Stadium with a victory are significantly increased.