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Dolphins vs Saints: Miami's Keys to Victory

Sunday's big game between the Dolphins and Saints is now just days away.  All Dolphin fans know that this game certainly will not be easy.  But it's definitely not an "unwinnable" game.  The Dolphins certainly can win this game.  But they'll have to play a near-perfect game.  And these three keys below will be very important:

Keep it close
This one almost goes without saying.  Even with the stronger armed Chad Henne under center, the Dolphins are not a team that can come back from big early deficits.  They do not have the firepower and that's just not their way.  Meanwhile, the Saints have the kind of explosive offense that allows them to score quickly and score often.  The Dolphins obviously can't allow this to happen.

In three of their five games, the Saints have had halftime leads of 18, 14, and 17.  And the Saints have scored on their first possession in all five of their games - putting up four touchdowns and a field goal.  They've also never trailed in a game all season.  And excluding when the game was 0-0, the Saints have only been tied for 19:22 of game time - meaning the Saints, after scoring on their first possession, have only been in a tie for 19 minutes and 22 seconds combined in all five games.  That's insane.

But that also presents an opportunity.  The Dolphins have been in tight games in the second half in all but one of their games.  So this team is familiar, and comfortable, playing in tight, pressure-packed situations.  The Saints might not be.  Who is to say how New Orleans will react as the game progresses into the late 3rd and early 4th quarter of a tight, one-score game?

Linebacker Akin Ayodele, whose brother is a starting defensive tackle on the Saints, agrees:

"We've really faced adversity early in this season. I think it has put us in a better situation when certain things come about that we're prepared. Mentally we're prepared. We know how to deal with it."

"That's what we're shooting for: the fact that maybe nobody has pushed them. We're not the team that's going to just sit back and let them come on our home turf and push us around."

Frankly, I'm actually borderline over-confident that the Dolphins can pull off the win if they can keep this game close in the fourth quarter.  And I say this only because I don't know how the Saints will react if/when the Dolphins refuse to go away.  Like Akin said, nobody has pushed them yet in 2009.  The question, if the Dolphins can indeed push them, is if the Saints have the right mentality to push back - especially when their on the road with the stadium rocking.

Get in manageable 3rd downs and convert
On paper, the Saints have the top 3rd down defense in the league - allowing opponents to convert on just 27% of their 3rd down attempts.  But I think that stat is misleading in that many of the 66 3rd downs the Saints defense has faced have been 3rd & long situations due to incomplete passes on early downs as teams attempt to play catch-up.  But I'm still not sold on New Orelans' ability to get off the field on 3rd and short situations.  And the Dolphins are one of the league's best in converting those opportunities.

This season, the Dolphins are number one in the NFL in coverting 3rd and 2 yards or less to go - converting at an 85% clip (17/20).  That stat is a big reason why the Dolphins lead the NFL in 3rd down conversions, with a rate of 56% - 5 percentage points higher than the numer two team.  Of course, the percentage drastically dips when the situation is not a 3rd & 2 yards or less - from 85% to 45%.  Not bad at all; but not as impressive, either.

Meanwhile, Ronnie Brown ranks third in the NFL since 2000 in 3rd down conversion percentage with two or fewer yards to go (among backs with at least 25 attempts).  Ronnie has converted 40 of 53 attempts (75.5%) - less than four percentage points lower than Joseph Addai and just over two percentage points lower than Adrian Peterson, who ranked one and two.

When you factor in Ricky Williams and Lousaka Polite, it's easy to see why the Dolphins are so effective in short-yardage situations.

On Sunday, the league's top 3rd down offense will face the league's top 3rd down defense.  And whoever wins more of those matchups will obviously go a long way towards determining the outcome of the game itself.  The Dolphins must do a good job of staying in manageable 3rd down situations.

Win the third phase of the game
We all know that the Dolphins don't exactly possess the best special teams units in the league.  But the Dolphins have the rare opportunity of going up against a team whose own special teams units are nothing special, either.  Both are mediocre and the Dolphins would really benefit from making a big play or two to gain that "hidden yardage" and swing field position in their favor.

The Dolphins average only 22 yards per kick return.  The Saints average only 22.1 yards.  The Dolphins average 8.6 yards per punt return.  The Saints only average 3.9.

As far as kick coverage goes, there's a big discrepancy.  The Dolphins have been surprisingly effective covering kickoffs.  They rank 3rd in the league in yards allowed per kick return - only 20.  The Saints, however, allow 26.8 yards per kick return - the 3rd highest figure in the league.  So whoever replaces Patrick Cobbs as Miami's primary return man - likely Ted Ginn Jr. or Kory Sheets - should have an opportunity to at least make a big play, which could really create some momentum for the Dolphins as they bid for the upset.