The Dolphins return to Sun Life Stadium on Sunday for the first time since their pitiful Thursday night display against the Bears a couple of weeks ago. A win over the Browns on Sunday would put the Dolphins two games over .500 for the first time since September and keep their playoff hopes alive for another week.
Despite their 4-7 record, the Browns are not a push-over. After all, they did beat the Saints and Patriots in back-to-back weeks by double digits.
Time to highlight three key matchups:
Peyton Hillis vs Dolphins front seven
The Dolphins did a great job last week containing the number two rushing offense in the NFL to just 16 yards on the ground. But even with last week's strong effort, the Dolphins are giving up over 100 yards per game on the ground for the season. And Cleveland's big, bruising back is the kind of back that could give this defense fits.
Peyton Hillis is an old-school style running back. He seeks out contact and then uses his 240 pound frame to run over defenders. He's currently 9th in the league in rushing with 905 yards rushing. And when Hillis rushes for over 100 yards, the Browns are 3-1.
What worries me most has been this defense's poor tackling at times this year. Hillis is the kind of back that can certainly take advantage of poor tackling. Peyton is a north-south runner who will attack the middle of this 3-4 defense. That means the defensive linemen and inside linebackers will be asked to really play tough and make plays to keep Hillis from picking up chunks of yards.
Josh Cribbs vs Dolphins coverage units
Outside of Devin Hester, there might not be a more dangerous return man in the league than Cleveland's Josh Cribbs. Though Cribbs is having a down season in terms of his return numbers - averaging a career low 21.1 yards per kickoff return - he's as talented as they come. His career average of 26.1 yards per kickoff return is outstanding and his 8 career kickoff returns for a touchdown is more than any player in NFL history. His career average of 10.8 yards per punt return is also the fifth best among all active players.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, continue to have major hiccups when covering kicks. We saw that last week when Oakland's Jacoby Ford avoided three defenders en route to returning the opening kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown. On the season, Miami is surrendering 26.3 yards per return - the 3rd most in the league. And no team has allowed more kickoff returns for touchdowns than the two that the Dolphins have given up.
The easiest way for inferior teams to steal victories is to make big plays on special teams. The Browns, on paper, are the inferior team. But Josh Cribbs could easily change the outcome of Sunday's game all by himself of the Dolphins are not careful.
Chad Henne vs Browns secondary
This last matchup is purely for my own personal enjoyment. Running the football should be and likely will be Miami's number one priority. But when push comes to shove - even if the Dolphins do not make the playoffs - determining if Chad Henne can be a legitimate franchise quarterback is probably the single most important thing that can happen over these final five games.
Henne has looked like a different quarterback since his benching a few weeks ago. He's looked more comfortable and has been more aggressive on the field. And we aren't the only ones noticing this change in Henne - as exemplified by this piece in the Miami Herald.
But one thing Henne has not done is put together back-to-back weeks of strong performances. That's what I most want to see this Sunday against the Browns. Cleveland's secondary is average at best - ranked 19th in the league in passing yards allowed per game (237) and 21st in yards allowed per attempt (7.3). There should be opportunities down the field for Henne to make plays. Will he still be playing with that "F--- You" attitude and take those shots? I sure hope so.