I tried to hold back a little. I really did. But it's time to finally look ahead to this weekend's game between the Dolphins and Patriots down in Miami.
I know I've used this phrase once or twice already this season. But I'm 100% sure that this time I am dead on accurate: Sunday's game is the absolute biggest game in at least 5 years. You could even make an argument that this game is the biggest game the Dolphins will have played in this millennium. That's right - it's that damn big.
There are a number of reasons why. But the most important is what a Dolphins' victory would signify. It would really all but end the Patriots' reign as the dominant AFC East team. It would be the first time since 2000 that the Dolphins sweep the season series against the Pats. And most importantly, it would legitimize the Dolphins and their amazing, improbable success this season.
A win by the Dolphins on Sunday would end all this talk of the Dolphins being just a "good story." It would move them from the list of "pretenders" to the list of "contenders." In all honesty, it would thrust the Dolphins into the limelight - for a positive reason, rather than a negative.
The good news? The Dolphins' players and coaches all realize the importance of this game. And no matter the outcome, I can guarantee you that this team will come prepared to play.
Coach Tony Sparano even made one significant change this week. All season long, if the Dolphins won on Sunday, the players would get Monday off. But not this week - a decision made on Saturday before the team even took the field against Oakland. And the players have taken notice. Antony Fasano said that "it kind of opened our eyes up that it's a big game."
Sparano said on Monday that he woke up in the morning feeling like he was "a kid in a candy store." And what did he tell his players?
"My message to the players is if you walk through this door Wednesday and your heart isn't racing a million miles an hour then you don't have a pulse. This is why we do what we do. We put ourselves in a position to have a big game at home here at the end of November. I don't think too much has to be said this week."
The players have received this message loud and clear. In fact, Ronnie Brown even called this game the biggest game of his NFL career, adding, "It's going to be a big turning point of our season."
With the Patriots having played the Thursday night game last week, they've gotten a little extra time to prepare for Sunday's tilt with the Fins. But Sparano doesn't seem worried. He said:
"That doesn’t bother me at all, them having a few extra days one way or the other. Sometimes the more you do is not always good.”
Bill Belichick, though, is probably happy with the extra preparation time that he has gotten. It's probably allowed him to really break down the 'Wildcat' - which was unveiled back in week 3 by the Dolphins and absolutely killed the Pats in that game.
But Justin Smiley isn't worried. Instead, he's confident that Dan Henning and company will come up with another solid gameplan for Sunday. Says Smiley:
“We always got something. We have stuff nobody’s seen. We always have wrinkles and stuff like that. Every week he’s got something special, something to keep them on their toes.”
A Little History
Remember the last time the Dolphins faced the Patriots in a late-season game with major playoff implications? I sure do. That game will be forever etched into my memory. It was week 14 of 2003. The 8-4 Dolphins were heading up to New England to take on the 10-2 Patriots. It was cold. It was snowy. And it was ugly.
The Dolphins managed just 134 yards of offense and 7 first downs. Despite all that, it was just a 3-0 New England lead heading into the 4th quarter. That was when Jay Fiedler threw that costly interception that was returned for a touchdown by Tedy Bruschi. That's also when Patriot fans at the game began celebrating by throwing snowballs into the air - thousands of them. And that is a visual I just can't seem to shake - no matter what I try.
Of course, a win on Sunday would go a long way towards erasing that memory and replacing it with a new and improved one.
The Big Picture
Sunday's game, though, is about more than just erasing bad memories. Believe it or not, the playoffs are within reach - a crazy thought when this time last year the Dolphins were 0-10.
A win on Sunday could move Miami into a first place tie with the Jets should the Jets lose to the unbeaten Titans in Tennessee. But it would also help them in other ways. Let me explain.
By winning the games in which they play non-division teams with bad records - the Rams, 49ers, and Chiefs - the Dolphins could get to 9 wins heading into their final game against the Jets. That could very well be enough to give the Fins a chance at the playoffs heading into that final game - which is really all you could ask for given the expectations of the season back in July and August.
However, a win against the Patriots on Sunday would do two important things. First, it would potentially give the Dolphins an opportunity to have 10 wins heading into that final game. Secondly, it would allow the Dolphins to lose one of the games that they theoretically shouldn't against those 3 bad, non-division teams and still be at 9 wins entering week 17. More importantly, if that "unexpected loss" came against either the Rams or 49ers, the Dolphins wouldn't get hurt in the playoff tie-breaker scenarios - division and conference record.
And I haven't even mentioned that game in a few weeks up in Toronto against a struggling Bills team.
So a win on Sunday would give the Dolphins many more avenues to obtain 10 wins - the likely magic number that will be needed to make the playoffs in the AFC. A loss, however, would put more pressure on the Dolphins to win those games that they are "supposed" to win - beginning the following week with a trip to St. Louis.
Any way you slice it, Sunday's game is as important a football as this franchise has played in many years. And Sunday can't get here soon enough.