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Every Sunday becomes more important. Every Sunday offers more clarity, more evidence to properly evaluate this season and these Dolphins.
But now we are in the stretch run. Four more games. Two on the road. Two at home. The Steelers are up first Sunday in Pittsburgh, then the Dolphins travel through the AFC East to close out the season.
That this Sunday’s game comes with serious playoff implications, that the Dolphins have a real shot to be one of the league’s pleasant surprises, tells you how far this team has travelled through three-quarters of the season.
But there is no time for reflection, no time for yesterday’s stories. As I have said over and over this week, the next four games will define this season. We reside right now at an undeniable crossroad. The Dolphins have been on a win one/lose one mode for the past six games. Something needs to give to avoid mediocrity.
You can argue that there has been no finer overall performance by this team than last Sunday’s 20-point victory over the Jets. The defense rocked; the offense rolled. The challenge Sunday in Pittsburgh is to build off that victory and to demonstrate, in the process, that December will not a big tease but a true barometer that this team needs to be taken seriously.
Those are the stakes against a Pittsburgh team that has bounced back from an 0-4 start to win five of their last seven and who harbor real playoff hopes just as the Dolphins do. This is a formidable test for the Dolphins. The defense must figure out a way to contain Ben Roethlisberger and the offense must contend with, among other things, an all-over-the-field safety named Troy Polamalu.
Imagine what a victory would mean. It would put the Dolphins at 7-6 and set the stage for a nice little showdown with New England a week from Sunday. But, more than anything else, it would give this team a large measure of consistency it has been lacking. You win two-in-a-row in December and it sends a clear signal. You follow a big win over the Jets with a loss to the Steelers and, in some ways, it’s back to square one.
“It’s time for us to put our eyes on the prize,” said receiver Mike Wallace. “This is December which is when the good teams step forward.”
I see many keys to this game. Here are three that especially interest me.
• The Dolphins have to get to Ben Roethlisberger. They have to get him out of his rhythm, force him to make uncomfortable throws and contain him when he starts buying time in the pocket, which he does probably about as well as any quarterback in the league.
Said Coach Joe Philbin: “We have to tackle better than we have all season.”
Added cornerback Brent Grimes: “I have an internal alarm clock that tells me how long I need to stay with the man I’m covering. Going up against Ben, I have to throw out that alarm clock and just stay with my man until I’m sure the play is over. You have to be really disciplined.
• Mike Wallace has to come up big: This is a homecoming for Wallace. He spent four successful seasons in Pittsburgh before signing with the Dolphins. But there will be no time for warm, fuzzy feelings. The Steelers are susceptible to the deep pass. Have been most of the season. That’s where Wallace comes in.
There is nothing Wallace would like more than to put together one of those multi-touchdown performances against his old team. He knows the defensive personnel all too well. He knows the stadium, the fans and, deep down, he knows that he can be the difference in this game.
Despite a slow start to the season, Wallace says: “I’ve never lost my swagger. I’m starting to get into the flow of things. It’s time to hit stride. I’ve got to make plays now. No more time to wait.”
Wallace has shown signs over the past two games that he is developing a comfort zone in this offense. But it is time for Wallace to take that comfort zone to another level. He can think of no better team to do it against than the Steelers.
• Beware of Troy Polamalu: He is the wild card on the Steelers defense and you can underline the word WILD. You just don’t know where Polamalu is going to line up, what he is going to do, on any given play. But you know he’s going to make an impact. He is probably the quickest, most instinctive safety in the league and the Dolphins must be aware of his location at all times.
Polamalu is a master at disrupting a quarterback’s timing and since Ryan Tannehill has not seen his act up close and personal before, it could make for some interesting confrontations. Plain and simple, the Dolphins can not let Polamalu come up with the game-changing plays that he is known for.
“He is crazy good,” said Dolphins offensive lineman Nate Garner. “He’s going to be flying around everywhere and we’ve got to be ready. He doesn’t even mind lining up over a big, ol’ guy like me so I figure I’m going to see some of him as well. We just all have to be ready. What he does most is just make plays.”
So the scene is set. It is the 13th game of the season and the Miami Dolphins clearly understand the importance of beating Pittsburgh. “If it’s going to be our time,” said Grimes, “it’s up to us to go out and make it happen.”
AC in the AM returns on Monday with a breakdown of the game against the Steelers.
The opinions, analysis and/or speculation expressed by The Finsiders Blog represent those of individual writers, and unless quoted or clearly labeled as such, do not represent the opinions, policies or desires of the Miami Dolphins organization, front office, coaches and executives. Writers' views are formulated independently from any inside information and/or conversation with Dolphins officials, including the coaches and scouts, unless otherwise noted.