Because the past few seasons have been so bad in Miami, I've forgotten how much I love big late-season football games. And that's exactly what Sunday's game at Arrowhead Stadium is - despite the Chiefs dismal record.
And so I present for discussion some keys to victory for the Dolphins. Keep in mind, though, that these are just a few. Be sure to add in anything I missed below in the comments.
Deal with the weather.
Yes, it's going to be nasty out. The Weather Channel is now saying the high for Sunday in KC will be 16 degrees with 23 mph wind. Factoring in the wind chill, it could very well feel like below zero outside. And if the game-time temperature is indeed 16 degrees, it would officially be the coldest game the Miami Dolphins have ever played in.
But here's the thing. Both teams have to play in this weather. So as much as the media wants to talk about how much of a disadvantage the weather is going to be, there aren't likely many players on either team who has played in a game that was as cold as it potentially might be on Sunday.
And while Chad Pennington has played one game in his NFL career in which the temperature was below 20 degrees - going 25/35 (71%) for 263 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions back in 2006 in a win over the Packers in Green Bay - Kansas City's starting QB doesn't have any experience in these conditions.
More importantly, though, is how each QB will handle the wind more so than the cold. In games described as "windy," Pennington has an 83.1 QB rating - completing 62.3% of his passes, throwing 36 touchdowns and 28 interceptions in 35 games. Thigpen, meanwhile, has a rating of 78 - completing 57% of his passes, throwing 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in 4 games.
For Chad Pennington and the Dolphins, an effective short passing game will be important.
Force Tyler Thigpen to pass.
IT goes without saying that the Dolphins will want to run the ball effectively on Sunday. "Pound the rock" has been the war-cry all week here in our little community. But even more important than Miami's ability to run the ball will be Miami's ability to stop the run.
Larry Johnson is still a talented running back - despite what some people might think. But if you have watched KC play the last 3 weeks, you know that he doesn't look like the same LJ. He's only averaging 61 yards per game on the ground over the team's last 3 games. And his 3.5 yards per carry average over that span is almost a full yard lower than his season average. But you can bet the Chiefs will attempt to get LJ back on track this week due to the poor passing conditions that this game is likely to be played in.
For the Dolphins, stopping Johnson is priority #1 on defense. And while the Fins' 3.9 ypc against on the season is good for 10th best in the NFL, this defense has been hot and cold against the run. Three weeks ago, they let a rusty Steven Jackson gain 94 yards on the ground, averaging 4.5 ypc. The following week, they held Marshawn Lynch to just 31 yards on 13 carries. But then last week, 49er backup RB DeShaun Foster, filling in for the injured Frank Gore, ran for 76 yards on just 18 carries (4.2 ypc).
If the Dolphins let LJ run the ball as well as Jackson or Foster, then they will let KC remain in this game.
The best way to force Thigpen to pass the ball? Contain Johnson on 1st down. This season, Johnson is averaging 4.2 yards per carry on 1st down. If the Dolphins let LJ gain 4 yards consistently on 1st down, this game is going to be too close for comfort. But if the Fins can contain LJ on first down and keep the Chiefs in 2nd & long situations, they will force the young Thigpen to have to make plays down the field in less than ideal weather conditions.
Defense must get off the field.
It was really amazing that the Dolphins were able to win last week despite holding the ball for 17 few minutes than the 49ers. And while some will say that the time of possession differential was caused by the Dolphins' lack of a running game, I would disagree and argue another point.
The one common denominator in Miami's 3 close wins over "sub-par teams" (Oakland, Seattle, SF) was the inability for the Dolphins' defense to get off the field. Sure, they intercepted Marc Bulger 3 times. But in the other two games, the Dolphins created no turnovers. Worse yet, however, was Miami's inability to stop the opposing offense on 3rd down - which is very worrisome when you consider that none of the 3 teams really possess explosive offenses. In those 3 games, Miami's opponents converted on 48% (22/46) of their 3rd downs. That's totally unacceptable and well above this defense's season average of 37%.
So as this game unfolds, be sure to pay close attention to how effective the Chiefs' offense is on 3rd down.
Other Things To Watch For:
-Will the Dolphins try to run the ball between the tackles or stick more to the outside? Last week, the Fins rarely ran it inside - probably because of the injuries to their guards. Will the coaches be comfortable enough to try some inside handoffs this week?
-Will the receivers show up this week? Against the Niners last week, Davone Bess and Ted Ginn combined for just 5 catches and 31 yards. More productivity is needed from this group.
-Will the height of KC's pass catchers be a problem for Miami's secondary? The team's 3 leading receivers (Tony Gonzalez, Dwayne Bowe, and Mark Bradley) are big targets. Gonzalez is 6'5 and both Bowe and Bradley are 6'2. Match-up problems could arise for the Fins.