This one matters. It doesn’t count, but it matters.
On Saturday night at Hard Rock Stadium, ready or not, the 2018 Miami Dolphins reveal themselves. For the first time fans will get a real indication whether their team might be as bad as the critics say or be one of the NFL’s biggest surprises.
Nothing has told us much to this point. Not the players departed or added since last season. Not the offseason workouts. Not the minicamps. Not the draft. Not training camp. Not the first two preseason games. Not the national criticism nor the internal optimism.
How Miami performs Saturday vs. the Baltimore Ravens will matter more than any of that and be telling because third preseason games are the dress rehearsals in which teams play their starters and actually try to win. The first two exhibitions are about playing everybody with roster cuts in mind. The fourth exhibition is about not getting anybody hurt. It’s this third preseason game that draws the curtain back to reveal your actual product.
“Everybody knows they’ve got to bring it this week,” as Dolphins coach Adam Gase put it. “Every team in the league would really like to play well in the third preseason game,”
The opponent adds to the intrigue for a couple of reasons, magnifying this as a gauge for where the Dolphins stand.
First, tough and physical Baltimore has dominated — no, embarrassed — Gase’s team each of the past two seasons on the road. It has been men-against-boys stuff that made the Dolphins look soft. Weak. It was 40-0 last year and it sent a 4-2 start spiraling to a 6-10 finish. It was 38-6 the year before.
“Yes we’ve struggled against them for whatever reason,” Gase admits.
This particular opponent is whey the Dolphins figure to be at their most physical Saturday, and why winning will be important in way it was not the past two weeks.
That it’s Baltimore also matters because this is a good-not-great AFC team very likely will be in the hunt for one of two conference wild-card playoff spots. Realistically, the upside for Miami this season will be wild-card contention, so the Fins will be measuring themselves Saturday against one of the teams they need to be as good or better than.
No matter the opponent, though, it’s the dress rehearsal.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill calls the third preseason game “the closest thing you get to a real game as far as game-plan preparation. We’re setting it up how we go through a normal week so that meetings, install and everything else is pretty similar to [the regular season].”
That the Dolphins are 0-2 this preseason makes winning Saturday that much more desirable. Miami has started 0-3 only five times in 52 seasons (last in 2012) and did not make the playoffs any of those seasons.
Tannehill and other starters are expected to play most of the game Saturday. Also look for newly acquired veteran running back and Miami native Frank Gore, the Old Cane, to see his first preseason action in front of the home fans.
ESPN’s latest NFL Power Rankings call the Dolphins the worst team in the entire league, a designation normally reserved for the Cleveland Browns.
Gase and his players believe they are a playoff team.
Somebody is going to be very wrong.
I am closer to thinking this won’t be the nightmare season a No. 32 ranking suggests. A healthy Tannehill alone means the Dolphins will be competitive, likely in that seven- to nine-win range that means wild-card contention — that broad midsection of average that most years seems to include half of the league.
Saturday won’t tell us who’s right about the Dolphins on the gloom to optimism scale.
We’ll get a first real hint, though -- something tangible to move the needle on expectations.