The point of Sunday’s game between the Miami Dolphins and Oakland Raiders? Well, think of it as an unmasking of the Dolphins identity. Think of it as a game that could set the direction of what this season is about to become.
Think of it as a chance to learn if these Dolphins can do big things this year...
...Or learn if these Dolphins are going to do the same old disappointing things they’ve been doing for years.
“It’s only Week 3, but this is a big week for us and we need to find a way to come out with a win,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill says.
Tannehill doesn’t reveal the full scope of why there’s urgency within the organization to win this game.
“Because it’s the next one. It’s the next game,” Tannehill says, repeating an old cliche. “I know you hate that answer, but that’s what it is. It’s a home game and it’s an AFC opponent. We want to play well at home. We want to win at home. We have a big opportunity and we have to take advantage of it.”
That’s some of it. Here’s the rest:
The Oakland Raiders are winless. They’re a team still trying to find footing for their new offense and new defense. They haven’t quite figured things out yet.
And while they’re trying to come to that epiphany, the Raiders must travel across the country and play a game in Miami’s heat and humidity at a time of day the players’ body clocks are telling them it’s 10 a.m.
Given those built-in advantages, a good team finds a way to finish Sunday with a victory. So we’ll know after this game if the Dolphins are a good team.
Or we’ll know, at the very least, if the Dolphins are on their way to being good.
But what if the Dolphins can’t come out with that victory? No, that doesn’t ruin the season. But Miami will have squandered an opportunity. The Dolphins will have done what they’ve done so many times stretching all the way back into the 1990s.
Now, as a loyal fan, raise your hand if you feel a loss to Oakland is a buzz kill and a strong suggestion we’re dealing with the same ol’ Dolphins. I see lots of hands going up.
So, yes, this is an identifier game for anyone paying attention to the Dolphins’ season arc.
About that: You want the Dolphins to be 3-0 by Sunday evening. You need the Dolphins to be 3-0 by Sunday evening.
Why is this a big deal?
After all, 2-1 is still a good start. It’s a team with a .666 winning percentage. That’s good, right?
The truth is a loss Sunday puts the Dolphins in a hole because that game is supposed to be one of the easier ones on schedule -- at least easy compared to what awaits. The Dolphins cannot afford to be looking back on this game in December when they play New England, Minnesota and Jacksonville in consecutive weeks and wonder what could have been against the Raiders.
Speaking of the New England Patriots, the Dolphins will be traveling to New England for the first meeting of the series next week.
And while I don’t believe the 2018 Patriots will rise to the heights they have in previous years, they still have a team that demands respect. They’re still the class of the AFC East. They’re still also a team that’s hard to beat in Foxboro.
The Patriots are 25-2 at home against AFC East teams since 2009, the year quarterback Tom Brady returned to the lineup after missing almost all of 2008 with a knee injury.
The homestanding Patriots have swept their AFC East rivals (using “rivals” loosely) seven times in those 10 years.
The two home games New England lost to an AFC East opponent in all that time came in 2014 and in 2016, when the Buffalo Bills won at Gillette Stadium. And there were mitigating circumstances that led to those loses.
The 2014 loss came on the last weekend of the season, when the Patriots already had the division won and their playoff path set. Brady and several other starters sat in the second half of a 17-9 loss.
In 2016, the Patriots lost to the Bills during Brady’s deflategate suspension. Rookie Jacoby Brissett, making his second NFL start, was at the helm when New England lost 16-0.
So the Dolphins aren’t going to be favored when they travel to Foxboro next week regardless of their record.
But we can almost trust Adam Gase’s team to have a reasonable chance to win that game if the team starts the season with three consecutive victories. If the Dolphins have proven they’re good enough to win games they should win, maybe they’re ready to actually challenge the Patriots.
But that grand possibility will seem unlikely if the Dolphins travel to New England after losing at home to a previously winless Oakland. Because then it will seem as if we’re watching the same ol’ Dolphins.