We saw what promise looks like in the fourth quarter of last Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins. Will we see it again Sunday against the Buffalo Bills? And to what extent?
That's the challenge facing the Miami Dolphins this week. Use last Sunday's fourth quarter as a springboard. Hope that quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick can pick up where he left off. Build on the urgency and the execution. Create some momentum-shifting plays. See if this team can take what it learned about itself against the Redskins and apply it to the Bills.
That doesn't mean trailing by two touchdowns heading into the fourth quarter, as was the case against the Redskins. It means staying close early, matching physicality with physicality and doing everything possible to keep those rabid Buffalo fans in their seats.
Fitzpatrick knows all about that. He spent four seasons playing for the Bills. He understands the culture and certainly the challenge. The decision to move Fitzpatrick back in the starting lineup after his performance against the Redskins made perfect sense. Plain and simple, he gives this team its best chance at victory, certainly in an environment like this one and against a team of this caliber.
I'm not sure there is a better defense right now than the one the Dolphins will see in upstate New York. The Bills have yet to give up more than 17 points in a game this season. Perhaps their most impressive achievement was holding the Patriots offense to just 16 points. The Dolphins, conversely, haven't scored more than 16 points in a game this season.
"It'll be a unique challenge," Fitzpatrick said. "You have all those new stadiums that are enormous and it's almost like the game is secondary to some of the other stuff going on. But in Buffalo, it is all about the game. The crowd is going to be going nuts and we're going to be all we have on the sideline. We have to come together as a team and go do it."
The forecast calls for a balmy fall day with a high in the low 60s, which would be a nice break for the visitors from South Florida. A word of caution: I've covered about 30 games in Buffalo through the years and on at least four or five occasions, I've seen a late October forecast blown up by what they call The Lake Effect, which in its simplest terms, basically produces a snow storm off of Lake Erie, sometimes when you least expect one.
But even if the weather is football perfect, which is certainly possible, it won't make the task any less imposing. The Bills are brutally tough at home. Always have been. The only blemish on their 4-1 record is that six-point loss to the Patriots, which truthfully convinced a lot of people they were legitimate contenders.
Now they are coming off a bye and are as healthy as they have been all season. There is little doubt the Dolphins will need the type of complete game performance we have yet to see this season.
That's got to start with Fitzpatrick. His performance, I believe, will set the tone. If he starts hot and stays hot, he could seriously challenge a defense currently ranked third overall in the league, giving up just 275 yards a game, and also third in the league against the pass.
So how can they pull off the upset? What are the five essentials? Here's the way I see it:
- Don't let Josh Allen beat you with his feet: In two games last season, Allen combined to rush for 230 yards on just 18 carries against the Dolphins. That's almost 13 yards a carry, just about unheard of for a quarterback not named Lamar Jackson. But Allen is a huge man – 6-foot-5, 238-pounds – and while his passing still needs some refining, the fact that he can take off and run with such success has to be paramount on the minds of this Dolphins' defense.
- Keep the outcome out of Frank Gore's hands: The Dolphins know all about Gore and the mindset he plays with, especially deep in the fourth quarter against a tired defense. At 36 years old, Gore is still, well, Gore, averaging 4.4 yards a carry and leading the Bills by far with 75 touches. The first five games have not gone very well for the Dolphins' rushing defense, giving up almost 170 yards a game. If Gore gets going, he's going to be difficult to stop. Circle the name of linebacker Raekwon McMillan, perhaps the team's most proficient run stopper and a key to slowing down Gore.
- Force some turnovers: The Dolphins have produced only two takeaways through five games, an interception by Bobby McCain and a fumble recovery by Minkah Fitzpatrick. This is alarming and has a lot to do with a season-long disadvantage in time of possession. The Bills have given up 10 turnovers this season – seven on interceptions by Allen – so you know they can be susceptible. An improved pass rush would certainly provide more opportunities.
- Give Fitzpatrick the time he needs: The value of this can't be overstated. Josh Rosen was sacked four times in the first quarter last Sunday, the start of a forgettable day. I'm encouraged by the fact that Fitzpatrick has a good feel in the pocket, knows when to take a step one way or another and certainly knows when to take off and run. But it is imperative that the blocking gives him the opportunity to get in some kind of rhythm.
- Find a way to keep it close late: The Bills have outscored their opponents 30-0 in the second quarter and 35-17 in the fourth quarter, which means they set the tone early and finish it off late. It is imperative that the Dolphins play well early, maybe take a lead into the second half, all with the intent of making it a one or two play game in the final minutes. The last thing the Dolphins want is a sizeable deficit and an uphill battle to get back in the game. That's when the Buffalo defense is usually at its best.