This Sunday, two surprise AFC teams will meet in Indianapolis in a match that could ultimately determine which starting rookie quarterback will make the playoffs.
The Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, thought to be rebuilding projects, both enter Sunday's matchup with 4-3 records and playing for a potential playoff wild card. While many analysts projected Colts QB Andrew Luck to eventually become one of the league's elite, no one believed Luck or his counterpart Miami's Ryan Tannehill to bring instant success to their respective franchises.
Unfortunately for Dolphins fans, there is an estimated 50 percent chance that Tannehill will miss this upcoming game due to a bruised knee, which forced him out of last Sunday's road victory over the hapless New York Jets.
He is expected to start and play, however, unless he is severely hampered by his lack of mobility. Head Coach Joe Philbin would likely be forced to substitute in Matt Moore, who was 11 for 19 and recorded a 97 quarterback rating in his relief effort.
Luck had early struggles, failing to find the open man and often forcing throws that resulted in turnovers.
His maturity has already shown, as he led the Colts to two 80 yard drives that resulted in a 19-13 overtime victory on the road against Tennessee Titans. In the team's victory, he has an 87 quarterback rating and a five-to-two touchdown to interception ratio. His play clearly dictates how this team performs, as he has an underwhelming 60 quarterback rating and a three-to-six TD to INT in the team's three losses.
Luck has done a fantastic job spreading the ball around to his limited supporting cast, as he's had little help from the running game through seven games.
The Colts have failed to sustain a consistent running game; they're currently the 17th best rushing team at 107.1 yards per game. Interim Head Coach Bruce Arians has been forced to play rookie running back Vick Ballard in heavy doses due to early season injuries to starter Donald Brown. Ballard, a 2012 fifth round draft pick, has struggled to the tune of just 3.4 yards per carry and no rushing touchdowns.
When healthy, Brown has proven to be an upgrade, as he's averaged 4.3 yards per carry, but has only averaged a little over 60 yards a game. While Luck is just one game away from breaking Peyton Manning's rookie record of four 300-yard passing games in a season, the Colts need to establish a solid run game to have keep it close.
When they're able to run the ball, Indy actually presents an even attack, forcing defenses to play the run honest and not play nickel and dime packages.
The Colts have shined in the passing attack, particularly veteran wide receiver Reggie Wayne, who is among the league leaders in receiving yards (757, first), receptions (54, thhird), and reception yards per game (108.1, first).
While game projections show Wayne averaging drastically below his season numbers, I wouldn't be surprised if he exceeds his expectations of 75 receiving yards.
The Dolphins have been without offseason acquisition cornerback Richard Marshall, who had a breakout campaign in 2011. Marshall recorded three interceptions and 69 solo tackles last year, but sustained a back injury in late September that has sidelined him since. It's unknown if he'll play, and even if he does the Dolphins' secondary still isn't among the elite in the NFL, or even the conference.
They do have three linebackers who play every defensive down, however, quite the rarity among modern defenses.
DE Cameron Wake has been an absolute force so far this season, as he's averaged more than a sack a game (7.5 on the season) and has a favorable matchup against the below-average LT Anthony Castonzo. The Miami defense has 22 sacks on the season; their pass rush ranks among the top in the league.
On the other side of the ball, Miami's offense will be determined by how long Tannehill plays, if he plays at all.
While his stats strong show he has a long development ahead of him (four TDs, six INT, under 60% completions), Tannehill has shown a knack for big play ability in play action passes. Tannehill has been helped by the emergence of a strong running game, as RB Reggie Bush (when healthy) has shown that last season's career highs were no fluke. Bush has contributed nearly 100 total yards a game in 2012, with a 4.4 YPC and three TDs. Backup RB Daniel Thomas had 40 yards rushing against the Jets; he also added a touchdown on the ground.
While Bush averaged 75 yards rushing and half a touchdown in game simulations, the Colts have a fairly mediocre run defense. Bush could meet projections by halftime if the Dolphins take pressure off of Tannehill. Indianapolis' defense has given up over 137 yards rushing a game, and have had that average drop largely by playing poor rushing offenses like the Green Bay Packers, New York Jets and Cleveland Browns (when they held star rookie RB Trent Richardson to just eight yards on eight carries).
Going into the 2012 season, many believed that Tannehill would struggle due to having limited playmakers on his offense. Both wide receivers Brian Hartline and Davone Bess have surprised, however, and could finish this year with 1,000-yard campaigns.
While neither have found success in the end zone (just one combined TD), TE Anthony Fasano already has three TDs and ranks ahead of established TEs, including New England's Aaron Hernandez, Jacksonville's Marcedes Lewis, and Green Bay's Jermichael Finley in this category. Indianapolis will be without their number one cornerback Vontae Davis, a former Dolphin, as he is out with a knee injury.
While touchdowns may be scarce, both Hartline and Bess should reach 50 yards each.
The Colts defense, playing without their defensive maestro, Head Coach Chuck Pagano, must contain the Dolphins' rush attack. If they limit Miami's ability to run, the play action won't be as dangerous and the strength of Indy's defense can get after the quarterback on 3rd and longs.
OLBs Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis need to bring heat on Tannehill or Moore; the right side of the Miami offensive line is particularly prone to strong pass rushers. That won't be enough to win this close game.
I predict Miami winning this matchup 21-17.