Playoff spots and divisional races are up for grabs, and wild cards are plentiful as we head into the home stretch of the season. Two teams still in the thick of things, the Miami Dolphins and Washington Redskins, face off on Sunday night on ESPN (8:30 p.m. ET).
To get to the finish line, first and foremost, they must to do a better job of protecting their quarterback. Patrick Ramsey has been sacked 29 times this season and is now ailing from a re-aggravated foot injury. If Ramsey can't play on Sunday night, a tough Dolphins' defense will provide a long, punishing night for Tim Hasselbeck's NFL debut. Washington must commit to protection.
The Redskins have lost six of their last eight games in large part to critical and careless mistakes. As a unit, this team has been inconsistent and undefinable. Mistakes have allowed their quarterback to get beat up and have turned over games to opponents. They have some talented players and are very close to being a solid team, but they just can't seem to put it all together.
In last week's 20-17 loss to the Carolina Panthers, Washington had a legitimate gripe regarding Stephen Davis' game-winning touchdown. When the play was reviewed, in my opinion, it didn't look like the ball actually crossed the goal line. But, instead of lamenting on one play, the Redskins should have been looking inward and wondering how and why they were even in that situation.
The Redskins should have jumped out to an early lead and beat the Panthers, easily. But instead of capitalizing on opportunities, they netted only three points from three Panthers' turnovers in the first half and the game eventually fell in the Panthers' favor.
One of the Redskins' strong suits has been the aquisition of kicker John Hall. Ranked third in the NFC, Hall's only game-winning opportunity came from 33-yards in Week 1 against his former team, the New York Jets.
On Sunday night, against a tough Dolphins' defense, it's likely this matchup will come down to field goals and Hall will again be center stage.
Two keys for the Redskins:
1. Protect Ramsey (or Hasselbeck)
Easier said than done against a defense that features Jason Taylor and Adewale Ogunleye. Offensive linemen Chris Samuels and Jon Jansen have their work cut out for them against an awesome pass rush, but they must keep Ramsey and/or Hasselbeck off the ground.
2. No turnovers
Against a stout Miami defense, the 'Skins won't have many offensive opportunities -- they can't afford to give any up. They should also plan on getting a heavy dose of Ricky Williams and the run as Miami tries to hog the ball and control the clock. Giving the ball back and contributing to the Dolphins field position could bury the Redskins quickly. They must protect the football.
At 6-4, the Dolphins appear to be in better shape than the Redskins, but the AFC competition is fierce. Though just two games behind AFC East-leading New England Patriots, the Fish need a win on Sunday night to stay above water.
Quarterback Brian Griese has struggled since his stealth, aquamarine debut against the San Diego Chargers. In the last three games, the Dolphins have won one, and Griese was 46-of-88 for 488 yards, one touchdown, four interceptions and four fumbles. Those are terrible numbers.
Last week, albeit against a tough Ravens' defense, Griese completed only 40.6 percent of his passes with one interception and zero touchdowns. And he was far too cautious when throwing the deep ball. Thanks to Ricky Williams, who battered out 105 yards on the ground, and Olindo Mare, who kicked three field goals, the Dolphins were able to pull off a hard-pressed, 9-6 victory.
Typically, Griese throws one of the best deep balls in the league. But with four interceptions in his last two games, something is clearly amiss. He's overthrowing his receivers, which tends to be a sign of being too cautious. When throwing the ball, the last thing on the quarterbacks' mind should be an interception. He needs to think about completing the pass -- nothing else.
I believe that Greise is a better quarterback than what we've seen the past few games. But his performance has been eerily reminiscent of the Dolphins' former backup quarterback Ray Lucas. Last season, when Lucas stepped in for an injured Jay Fiedler, his poor play contributed largely to the Dolphins' late-season slide.
It was that situation, which led the Dolphins to aquire Griese during the offseason. And while he's yet to step up and consistently play to expectations, he'll need to get it together for Sunday night.
Two keys for the Dolphins:
1. Run Ricky
Williams has run for 100 yards in just one of his last seven outings. To keep the Redskins' potentially explosive offense off the field, the Dolphins have got to pound the ground and control the clock with run. For the Dolphins to win, Williams will need at least 35 carries.
2. Pressure the quarterback
Opposing defenses have been getting to Ramsey all season long. As I mentioned earlier, Ramsey has been sacked 29 times this season -- only Drew Bledsoe has been sacked more times this season (30). Dave Wannstedt needs to bring on the blitz and let Junior Seau loose. When Seau gets the opportunity, he's extremely effective at getting to quarterbacks.
A game analyst for ESPN's Sunday Night Football, former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann won a Super Bowl and a league MVP award. He contributes regularly to ESPN.com.