I hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving yesterday. And if you're out shopping today - with it being "Black Friday" and all - I wish you luck. You would never catch me out there on this busiest shopping day of the year.
So with a belly full of turkey, let's talk some football. The Dolphins head up to Buffalo on Sunday as they look to get over .500 for the first time this season. Sure, the Bills have struggled this year. But never underestimate the effect that playing against a division rival can have. This is not a definite win for the Dolphins.
With that said, let's talk about some of the keys to victory for the Dolphins.
Mix in some Hilliard early
With the Bills having the second worst rush defense in the NFL (allowing 165 yards per game, though they did an outstanding job containing Maurice Jones-Drew last week), it's no secret that the Dolphins will make it a point to run the football on Sunday - as they do every Sunday, for that matter. But I think that it's important that the Dolphins work in Lex Hilliard more this week than they did last week - and that's for a couple of reasons.
First of all - and most importantly - the Dolphins need to take some of the workload off of Ricky Williams. The Dolphins are going to want to run the football early and often on Sunday and they can't run the risk of wearing down Ricky for the fourth quarter. I think the Dolphins need to get Hilliard involved early to take some of the workload from Ricky. Keep in mind that Williams is coming off of back-to-back 20+ carry games. So when was the last time Williams had three consecutive 20+ carry games? It was back in November/December of 2003. So it's been a while.
Secondly, the Dolphins do need to decide if Hilliard is a guy who can be counted on as the Dolphins head down the home stretch the playoff race heats up. Like I said, the Bills aren't exactly a good team defending the run and this game could be an important experience/confidence builder for a young back like Hilliard.
Don't surrender any big plays
This is obviously important every single week. But it's particularly important this week against Buffalo's offense. Why? Two reasons. One - the Bills have two explosive receivers. And two - Buffalo's offense is just not very good.
The Bills are just 29th in the NFL in yards gained per drive - averaging just 22.5 yards per possession. And they have just 29 total plays of 20+ yards. Meanwhile, the Dolphins have allowed 36 pass plays of 20+ yards and are 24th in the league in yards allowed per drive - surrendering 30.5 yards per opponent possession.
Back in their first meeting, the Dolphins did a great job defensively, holding the Bills to just 17.17 yards per drive. And when you play against an offense that really struggles to consistently gain yardage, you can't let them off the hook by surrendering chunk yardage through big plays. The Dolphins have to make the Bills work for every single yard they gain.
Be mentally prepared
The Dolphins have battled hard all year long following their rough 0-3 start to get back to .500. Now that the Dolphins have gotten over that hump, their next challenge is to climb to the top of the division - or at least into one of the two wildcard spots. But even with that challenge that this team faces, it might be easy to see an emotional letdown when they face a team like Buffalo - especially with a huge game with the Patriots looming in just a week.
However, that's something that Dolphins have not had happen to them over the past two years. They have done a terrific job at beating the teams they are "supposed to beat." You could even say that they've done a good job of beating the teams who are also close to them in terms of talent level on the roster from top to bottom (a la the Jets this year). This season, the Dolphins have knocked off the Bills, Jets (twice), Bucs, and Panthers - all teams with losing records. Last season, the Dolphins made sure they exposed of teams like Buffalo, Seattle, Oakland, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Kansas City.
Of course, the Dolphins weren't "favored" by Vegas in some of those games I listed above (like the ones against Buffalo). Officially, the Dolphins are 6-1 under Tony Sparano when they are the "favorite" - as determined by the sports books of Las Vegas. Their only loss was to the Ravens during last year's regular season. Yup - the Dolphins were actually favored in that game.
Anyways, this is a credit to the coaching staff, to be honest. They've done a nice job of preventing any kind of let down. They may have had some close calls against these teams. But they still find ways to win. On Sunday, let's hope the Dolphins are mentally prepared to put away a Buffalo team that will be in a feisty mood after losing a tough game in Jacksonville in their first game since the Dick Jauron firing. This will be Buffalo's first home game since the move was made and I expect the Bills and their crowd to be fired up to play spoiler against a hated division rival.
It'll be up to this coaching staff to ensure that these players match Buffalo's intensity.