Huge. There's no way around it. That's what Sunday's game between the Dolphins and the Patriots up in Foxborough is. It's huge - for the Dolphins, at least.
A win up in New England would pull the Dolphins within one game of the division lead and give the Dolphins a 4-0 record within the division - which would mean a win over Buffalo later on in the year would give the Dolphins the tie-breaker over the Patriots regardless of how their second meeting plays out in Miami. So let's be real about this game - it's a season-defining game, though at this point I think every game for the Dolphins is critical. But that's what putting yourself in a 2-4 hole does - it magnifies every game from here on out.
So what do the Dolphins have to do to leave Foxborough with a win for the second consecutive time? A lot, of course. But these three factors are among the most important.
Pressure, Pressure, Pressure
This is probably the most obvious key for the Dolphins - and yet it's also the most important. We know how dominant New England's passing attack can be. In my opinion, there is no better duo at the wide receiver position than Randy Moss and Wes Welker. They each have their own strengths and roles and they compliment each other absolutely perfectly.
It's no coincidence that the Patriots have the second best passing offense in the NFL and have been sacked the third fewest times all season. It's also no coincidence that in two of their last three losses with Tom Brady under center, it's been outstanding, relentless pass rushes that have slowed New England's dynamic offense - scoring just 23 combined points in those two games. The two games I'm referring to, of course, are the Super Bowl against the Giants back in February of 2008 and the Pats' week two loss to the Jets back in September. In each of those games, Tom Brady was under constant duress. The Giants got to Brady for five sacks. The Jets didn't actually record any sacks. But if you watched that game, you'd know that the various blitz packages the Jets were sending did enough to force Brady to have to throw the football well before he wanted to.
In those two games, Brady connected on just 55% of his throws and averaged just 5.07 yards per attempt. That's the blueprint the Dolphins will look to follow on Sunday.
To accomplish this, the Dolphins will obviously need big performances out of Jason Taylor and Joey Porter. But it goes beyond just those two. Randy Starks has been outstandthing this year and another big performance out of him would be terrific. Cameron Wake has been quiet since his big week against Buffalo, but I think we might see a little bit more of him on Sunday. I also expect t o see more of those safety blitzes we saw last week with Gibril Wilson and Yeremiah Bell.
The Pats will likely be without starting left tackle Matt Light, which means the Dolphins should have even more opportunities to get to Brady. They can't let those opportunities go to waste.
Pound the rock, but keep Pats honest
We all know the blueprint for what the Dolphins must do on offense against the Patriots. They have got to establish the ground game with Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams against a rush defense that is average at best. The Patriots are allowing 4.5 yards per carry on the ground this season, with is in the bottom third of the league. But teams have been forced to abandon the run against New England because they fall behind early. The Dolphins have got to prevent that from happening by getting the ground attack going early.
Of course, the Patriots know this. Bill Belichick can probably tell us all the exact number of times the Dolphins have ran the football out of every formation - 'Wildcat' included. And with him having had two weeks to prepare for this game thanks to New England's bye week, I'm sure we'll see some looks out of this Patriot defense that nobody has seen all year. But keep in mind that they traded away Richard Seymour prior to the season and Jarvis Green is out with a knee injury, meaning Mike Wright - a player with minimal starting experience - will be starting at the defensive end spot opposite Ty Warren, who is nursing an ankle injury himself.
With that said, though, it's important that the Dolphins do their best to prevent the Patriots from loading up on the run like the Saints and Jets have done the past two weeks. There were times on Sunday when the Jets actually had nine men in the box. That's because teams don't respect Miami's group of receivers nor do they think Dan Henning will call plays for Chad Henne to throw some deep balls.
This week I hope to see Henning give Henne a chance to make some plays down the field, which would help keep New England's defense honest and prevent their two athletic safeties from inching closer and closer to the line of scrimmage. The Patriots aren't exactly loaded in the secondary, either. So there will be plays to be made if Henning just gives Henne a shot. I know we all want to remain committed to the run. But I just don't think Belichick is going to let the Dolphins have a chance to get Ronnie and Ricky rolling. He's going to go all out to stop those two - as he should. It'll be up to Miami's offense to give Belichick a reason to stop loading up against the run.
Make a game-changing non-offensive play
Last week, the Dolphins beat the Jets thanks to three game-changing plays that were made in the other two phases of the game - not on offense. Ted Ginn's two kickoff returns for touchdowns and Jason Taylor's fumble return for a touchdown spotted the Dolphins 21 non-offensive points. This week, the Dolphins need another big play in New England.
There's no way around the fact that Miami's offense isn't nearly as potent as the Patriots are on offense. That's why the Dolphins really do need some kind of huge game-changing play in one of the two other phases of the game. The Patriots are 19th in the league in kickoff coverage, allowing 23.5 yards per return. Prior to last week, the Jets were allowing only 20.5 yards per kickoff return - one of the lowest totals in the entire league - before Ted Ginn and the Dolphins' return unit sliced the Jets up for 299 kickoff return yards on just 6 returns, including Teddy's two touchdowns. So there's no reason why the Dolphins can't get a big play or two to, if nothing else, swing the field position battle and build some momentum.
Defensively, the Dolphins will see a ton of passes fly through the air as Tom Brady is expected to throw the ball early and often against Miami's secondary. To date, Brady has thrown just 4 interceptions so making that big game-changing defensive play obviously will not be easy. But he also isn't afraid to put the ball up for grabs - especially in the direction of Randy Moss. And for the first time in a while, the Dolphins have at least two capable corners who can make a big play. Sean Smith and Vontae Davis both have excellent ball skills. Now I'm not saying I expect some kind of big play - but I wouldn't be surprised, either.