The 2-3 Miami Dolphins have traveled to the Windy City to take on the 3-3 Chicago Bears in a pivotal Week 7 matchup.
Is this game a must-win for Miami? That's arguable, but I'd say no. It is, however, as close to a must-win as a non-must-win could be. If the Dolphins don't win this game, then they will be 2-4 and in need of a sudden, long win streak to keep their playoff hopes alive.
Here are this week's seven things to watch for when then the game kicks off at 1 pm ET:
1. How Miami starts
The Dolphins offense has scored only ten combined points in the first quarters of their five games this season. The Dolphins defense has allowed 30 first quarter points. The team must start faster.
The Dolphins are averaging a league-leading 11.2 points in the third quarter of games this season, which is typically when the team seems to wake up and play winning football. If the Dolphins can come out and play an entire game as well as they play in the third quarter then they will pull out a pivotal road victory.
It will also be interesting to see how Miami responds from last week's crushing defeat against the Green Bay Packers. Will the team come out flat and emotionless, or will they come out with a rejuvenated sense of confidence and hunger?
2. Dolphins' rushing game
Chicago ranks 19th in the NFL in yards per carry, allowing 4.3. The Dolphins average five yards per carry on offense. Lamar Miller should receive a heavy workload with the news that Knowshon Moreno has been put on the Injured/Reserve list. Miller, who is averaging over five yards per carry, has been having a breakout season after a disappointing sophomore campaign in 2013.
If the Dolphins can keep the ground success going then this game will be much easier for them. The more chunk yards
3. Third down efficiency
The Dolphins are converting only 38% of third downs offensively and average only five converted third downs per game. The Dolphins need to stay out of third downs altogether. Miami's offense needs to pick up first downs on early downs in order to avoid third downs as much as possible.
The Dolphins are allowing 42% of third downs to be converted (49% in their last three games). The Dolphins' defense has forced the most third downs in the NFL, which is a good thing as it means they have created the most opportunities to get off the field for themselves. But the defense has struggled to get off the field consistently on third downs.
Miami's performance on third downs will have a direct correlation with the outcome of this game.
4. Dolphins smaller CBs on the Bears' big weapons
The Dolphins have two (barely) 5'10" cornerbacks in Brent Grimes and Corltand Finnegan that will each be facing a 6'5" monster of a receiver. Bears receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery are tough for any secondary to cover, but even more so when the height advantage is as drastic as it is in this matchup.
Marshall (pictured making a ridiculous catch above) will be facing his old team in the house of his new team, and he will undoubtedly play with fire and passion. Will Grimes or Finnegan be able to match the intensity and physicality he brings to the table? That will be interesting to watch.
5. Matt Forte and Martellus Bennett
One of these two will have a big day Sunday. This I know for sure.
Both of these guys are playmakers in the passing game, and the Dolphins only have one above-average coverage man in the linebacking corps, Jelani Jenkins, who can handle (to an extent) covering one of these two one-on-one.
Mismatches are present down the board with Chicago's offense, but none more glaring and worrisome than the mismatch that Forte and Bennett will create on the Dolphins linebacking corps. Forte leads the league in receptions while Bennett leads all tight ends in receptions (36) and has caught four touchdowns on the season.
6. Turnover battle
This is huge. Only one team in the NFL (Philadelphia Eagles) turns the ball over more per game than the Dolphins, who average just over two times a game.
The Dolphins turned the ball over three times against the Green Bay Packers last week and were still right there in the end. That normally won't happen. But let's look at the bright side of that-- if the Dolphins can eliminate those mistakes it should ultimately translate into more points.
The Dolphins should also be able to produce a turnover in this game. Bears QB Jay Cutler has been turnover prone in his past and has already thrown six interceptions this season. Cutler is throwing for a career-high completion percentage right now, which means he is making good decisions. The Dolphins will need to take advantage of any and all slip-ups.
7. Which Ryan Tannehill will show up?
Tannehill has been inconsistent. Wildly inconsistent. So inconsistent that it's a guessing game as to what version of Tannehill you are going to get on each and every play.
Which Tannehill will show up Sunday? The Tannehill from the first half of last Sunday's game against the Packers, who threw two picks and had a QB rating in the twenties? Or the Tannehill from the second half of the Packers game who led his team on three straight touchdown drives?
To be honest, it will probably be both (again). That is what is so maddening with Tannehill. Can he put a full, productive game together and lead his team to victory? Can he produce on third downs and in the redzone? Sunday's game will be good test.