Every team has their own, uniquely crafted road map to victory on any given Sunday. While the Miami Dolphins are an adaptable, week-to-week attack that reinvents itself specifically for their opponent, the over-arching themes are consistent.
The defense holds the opposition to less than 20 points per game and the special teams often wins the hidden yardage battle while making 91.9 percent of field goals. For the offense to best counterbalance the stingy nature of the other two phases, controlling the clock and running the football help to achieve the ultimate goal of every club – complementary football.
"We've been a team that's tried to be a 9-, 10-, 11-, 12-play drive, run the football, play action pass, control the clock, that's the situation we've found with Tua (Tagovailoa) in the ball game," Dolphins Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey said.
Miami out-possessed the opposition in seven of the team's 10 wins this season including better than 37 minutes of possession in the win over New England, more than 36 minutes against the Bengals and a smidge over 34 minutes back in the Week 5 win over San Francisco.
Drives that chew up considerable yardage are prevalent in the Dolphins wins. In the 10 victories, Miami had 21 touchdown drives that were longer than 60 yards – an average of 2.1 per game. The five losses featured just five touchdown drives of 60 or more yards, 1.0 per game.
The last two games – contests in which Miami rushed for a combined 380 yards on 67 carries and an average of 5.7 yards a pop – the Dolphins had touchdown drives of 90, 75, 75, 75 and 72 yards. In the Patriots win, it was running back Salvon Ahmed that led the way with 122 yards on the ground. Then, in Las Vegas, Myles Gaskin rushed for a team-high 87 yards and added 82 yards through the air.
"(Myles) had a good week of practice, which always means a lot," Gailey said. "Salvon had done extremely well the week before so he got to start, and then all of a sudden Myles started running the football, getting some creases and making some plays. He kind of got the hot hand and that's how we've been doing it this year; whoever gets the hot hand, we let them go."
The ground game and ball-control offense limited the Patriots and Raiders to a combined 19 possessions in the two games. The 9.5 drives per game over those two weeks was a full 2.5 drives per game fewer than Miami's season average, and since the Dolphins are surrendering just 1.67 points per drive (third-fewest in the NFL), the drive reduction bears out a point reduction of 4.2 points per game allowed.
Complementary football, indeed.
Dolphins Defensive Coordinator Josh Boyer didn't discuss it today, but his bottom line is about winning, and one of the ways to achieve that is the collaborative effort of all three phases working symbiotically. Last week, he was asked what it is that determines a good defense. Is it the 30.7 percent conversion rate on third down? Is it the 18.8 points per game allowed? Is it the 27 takeaways – all stats that rank best or tied for best in the league?
Boyer was to the point with his answer.
"Wins," he said.
Boyer elaborated on that point more back in November.
"I would say in order, for me, when I look at it; one is did we do what we need to do to win the game? Two, obviously we would like to keep the point totals down," he said. "Three, we would like to get the ball back to the offense as soon as we possibly can … I don't really pay any attention to (the stats). It's more of a factor of us trying to put our players in position to succeed and for us to win the game."
Getting the ball back to the offense is a high priority. So while the goal is to put points on the board for the offense, their performance helps aid the defense by keeping them fresh and limiting the possessions of the opposition, especially against particular competition.
The Dolphins have seen some of the top quarterbacks the NFL has to offer this season. Patrick Mahomes is perpetually in the MVP conversation. Russell Wilson entered the Week 4 game in Miami with 14 touchdown passes and only one interception through the first three games, the best touchdown-to-interception ratio ever through three weeks.
The Dolphins get their second crack of the season at another of the league's top-rated passers in Josh Allen.
"He's extremely athletic," Boyer said. "He can stand in the pocket and make all the throws. He can move and make all the throws. He's been productive in both areas."
Allen set a Buffalo franchise record with his 34th touchdown pass of the season last night in the Bills' 38-9 win over the Patriots, but he doesn't act alone. Wide receiver Stefon Diggs leads the NFL in receiving (1,459 yards) and his 120 receptions are the most ever by a veteran in his first year with a new team.
The Dolphins' mission this week? Utilize the three resources to limit the Bills' offensive output. Executing on defense, controlling the football on offense and winning the hidden yardage in the special teams game are all part of the challenge Head Coach Brian Flores' team faces.
Last week, Special Teams Coordinator Danny Crossman made it 2-for-2 on direct snaps to Clayton Fejedelem. The punt team moved the chains on a fake to the up man (Fejedelem) in Week 5, then picked up a first down, and a whole lot more, in the Week 16 win in Las Vegas. Fejedelem's 22-yard jaunt was the longest by a Dolphins non-skill played since Matt Turk ripped off a 23-yard run in 2003.
"More than anything, opportunities have presented themselves whether it's with particular looks or the situation of the game," Crossman said. "That's something that's given us the opportunity to call it … then it comes down to the execution of it. We've been good on some things, bad on some others; but fortunately it was successful on Saturday night."
If the Dolphins can replicate that formula to victory for an 11th time this season, they will head to the postseason as the fifth seed in the AFC and await a matchup with the winner of the AFC South (Indianapolis of Tennessee) in the Wild Card round.