Perhaps Cleveland becomes that game for the Miami Dolphins.
Perhaps the Browns are the game where it all comes together — offense, defense, special teams, coaching, discipline, everything.
“We haven’t yet had that game that you’re shooting for where you feel like each phase has played to its capability the entire game,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said.
McDaniel said he thinks his team is close to having such a complete game.
In the absence of the complete game, the Dolphins will do what they’ve done on their way to a 6-3 record, they’ll play their own brand of complementary football.
At times, it’s a bumpy road.
“But along the way,” McDaniel said, “we’re learning these great lessons, and that’s why I’m getting excited about the team and how we’re getting better each week.”
The Dolphins, who will host Cleveland (3-5) while playing their second game with new edge rusher Bradley Chubb and running back Jeff Wilson Jr., a pair of headline-grabbing trade deadline acquisitions, have a chance to take first place in the AFC East.
If the Dolphins win and Buffalo (6-2) loses to Minnesota (7-1), the Dolphins are in first place.
Whether or not that happens, the Dolphins have shown they can win doing things their way, so to speak.
McDaniel acknowledged the Dolphins’ brand of complementary football hasn’t been traditional in the sense it doesn’t always work with, say, the defense getting a stop, forcing a punt, and the offense taking the ball down the field and scoring on the ensuing possession time after time after time.
In fact, McDaniel thinks that’s unrealistic.
“There’s no complete domination in the NFL,” McDaniel said.
The Dolphins’ versions of complementary football have been a bit choppy, but effective.
Sometimes the offense has the magic, sometimes the defense has the magic, sometimes special teams make plays, and sometimes the magic is only there briefly but it surfaces at the right time.
In victories over Pittsburgh and Detroit the defense pitched second-half shutouts. Within that, things weren’t necessarily ideal. The offense didn’t score in the second half against the Steelers, but it posted 14 points in the second half against the Lions.
In the opener against New England the offense only scored one touchdown but the defense added a touchdown to aid in the 20-7 victory.
Against Baltimore, the defense allowed 38 points but only three points in the fourth quarter while the offense scored 28 fourth-quarter points to snag the 42-38 victory.
Again, it hasn’t been ideal but it works.
“There’s complementary football within it,” McDaniel.
The pattern repeated itself last week in the Dolphins’ 35-32 victory at Chicago.
The Dolphins, who got a special teams touchdown on a blocked punt, were holding a 35-32 lead early in the fourth quarter and the defense managed to clamp down on Chicago’s final two possessions to maintain that margin despite a record 178 yards rushing by Bears quarterback Justin Fields.
“This is the NFL,” McDaniel said. “It’s hard to have success in either phase the entire game. They get paid, too.”
Against the Browns, the Dolphins are tasked with controlling running back Nick Chubb, who ranks second in the league with 814 yards rushing.
“You’d be hard-pressed not to call him the best back in the league, simply because of what I talked to players all the time about,” McDaniel said, later adding, “he forces defenders to tackle him every play. And if you let up at all, he’ll have one of those rugby scrum explosives, where he’ll all of a sudden bust out.”
The Dolphins’ run defense has been torched by a pair of quarterbacks — Fields and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson (119 yards rushing) and tested by New York Jets running back Breece Hall (97 yards rushing).
The Browns, however, are tasked with stopping the Dolphins’ passing game that’s led by quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, whose 115.9 passer rating leads the NFL, and wide receivers Tyreek Hill (lead-leading 1,104 yards receiving) and Jaylen Waddle (812 yards receiving).
The Dolphins have had their best back-to-back scoring outputs of the season the past two weeks with 31 points at Detroit and 35 points at Chicago, both impressive road showings despite coming against a pair of NFL lightweights.
And the way McDaniel sees things, although the Dolphins haven’t yet had their ideal victory, they’re getting better each week.
“That’s what I hope for this week with the Cleveland Browns,” he said. “I want to see continued growth in ways that aren’t maybe as obvious as just the straight up box score, but we are learning how to step up in big moments.
“The more you do that, the more you have a chance to have that game where everyone is high-fiving at the end and acknowledging that their best game was played.”