With New Year's Day on Friday, let's look at Sunday's "keys to victory" today. While many might not see Sunday's game as "important" - I'd argue that, if nothing else, I just want to see the final Dolphins game of the year end with a win. To me, 8-8 sounds a million times better than 7-9.
So what do the Dolphins have to do to get to 8-8? A lot. These are some of the more critical factors.
Don't get buried again
In three of Miami's last four games, the Dolphins have fallen behind by double digits. In the last two, the Dolphins have fallen behind by an average of 22.5 points. In both instances, the Dolphins were unable to overcome their deficit and win the game - despite valiant comeback attempts. And that was against an average defense (Houston, 14th in NFL) and a bad defense (Tennessee, 28th).
On Sunday the Dolphins welcome to Miami the defending Super Bowl champions and their 6th ranked defense. In their last two, Pittsburgh has been effective at getting the early lead, opening a seven point halftime lead two weeks ago against Green Bay and a ten point halftime lead last week against Baltimore. The Steelers wound up winning both games.
While their defense gets a lot of the attention, though, it's Pittsburgh's offense that has been outstanding these past few weeks. They're averaging 30 points a game in their past two games and are in the top 10 in total offense and passing offense.
If the Dolphins fall behind early and are forced to pass the football to catch up, they would not only have to deal with the Steelers' relentless pass rush, they'd also have to somehow slow down a potentially explosive offense while playing from behind. Not an easy task.
Commit to the run
While the Dolphins are still statistically the fourth ranked rushing offense in the league, if you've been watching this team the past few weeks you would know that this team is just not running the ball like we're used to seeing. Over their last four, the Dolphins have run the ball for just 415 yards (103 yards per game) and average only 3.6 yards per carry. That's not going to cut it if you want to keep your defense off the field.
Now I know that Pittsburgh's defense is as good as they come against the run - ranking 3rd in rushing yards allowed per game (89) and 6th in rush yards allowed per carry (3.9). But in their last four, the Steelers have allowed 129 yards per game on the ground, including a 141 yard effort just last week by Ray Rice. Over this span, Pittsburgh's defense is allowing a shopping 4.5 yards per carry.
Of particular interest, the Browns ran their version of the 'Wildcat' with much success a few weeks back en route to a win over the Steelers. In their version, Josh Cribbs ran for 87 yards on 8 carries. Could week 17 be a 'Wildcat' - or 'WildPat' - revival?
Play with some emotion
For the past two weeks, it seems like the Dolphins have been not just outplayed but also out-hustled. Despite their season on the line, these players just haven't had that "fire" - an overused sports cliche but relevant in this situation - that we would have expected. If you watched last week's game, you would have seen Jason Taylor practically screaming at his own secondary to get their act together. That just about sums up how lethargic this team has looked at times - particularly early in games.
Even with their season all but over, what kind of effort are the Dolphins going to put forth? Will they show some heart and some pride? Will they just fold at the first sign of adversity? Have they already gone into "offseason vacation mode" already? Quite frankly, I just have no idea what to expect from this team anymore.