Miami Dolphins Are a Legitimate Threat in AFC Playoff Hunt
By defeating the Atlanta Falcons 27-23 on Sunday, they made several statements, but truth be told, they've already made several statements this year.
The biggest of those statements is that this is a team that will be in the hunt for the playoffs until the very end.
Against the Cleveland Browns, they proved they can still win when their most dynamic offensive playmaker, wide receiver Mike Wallace, is virtually a non-factor. Against the Indianapolis Colts, they proved they can play sound defense even against an elite quarterback. In beating the Falcons, they proved both of those things once again.
They would probably prefer these wins to come by 40 points instead of four points, but they have a 3-0 record for the first time since 2002. With that being said, the 2002 season may provide a cautionary tale about getting too excited over a 3-0 start—that Dolphins team missed the playoffs after finishing 9-7.
There were no singular moments, however, like quarterback Ryan Tannehill's fourth-quarter touchdown drive against the Falcons.
Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2012 draft, looks remarkably comfortable compared to just last season. On that final drive, he went 9-of-12 for 69 yards and the touchdown pass to tight end Dion Sims, and he showed a veteran-like poise.
On the day, the Dolphins converted seven of their 12 third downs. He converted three third downs on the drive, with a nine-yard completion to wide receiver Rishard Matthews on 3rd-and-1 and conversions on 3rd-and-2 and on 3rd-and-4 to wide receiver Brandon Gibson.
Tannehill led his team from behind on the road against the Colts and led the game-winning drive this week.
The 2012 rookie has developed into one of the premier young quarterbacks this season.
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He hasn't lit up the scoreboard, but he's been lethal in his efficiency this year. The best thing about this Dolphins team is that Tannehill doesn't have to be an elite quarterback. He just has to be good enough at the right times and not make critical mistakes.
That lack of burden is thanks to a defense that has continued to prove itself as one of the best in the league—if it wasn't already.
Sure, wide receiver Julio Jones made hay on the Dolphins defense, but no other receiver had over four catches. Tight end Tony Gonzalez was held to four catches for 24 yards. Roddy White had just two catches for 16 yards.
Their pass defense, overall, has been very efficient and disruptive this season.
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They held Colts quarterback Andrew Luck to just a 79.7 passer rating, and this week Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan fell victim to their stout pass defense by picking up just an 84.4 rating against the Dolphins defense.
In fact, through the first three games, Tannehill has outperformed the opposing quarterback each time.
Most importantly, in a pass-happy league, it's increasingly important to not only be efficient through the passing game on offense, but to also have an efficient pass defense.
The Dolphins have played some tough early opponents already, but there are some even more difficult challenges ahead.
The 3-0 New Orleans Saints have employed an aggressive new scheme under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, which promises to give Tannehill and the Dolphins offensive line all they can handle. After all, the Dolphins have already allowed 14 sacks on Tannehill this season. Given that statistic, the offensive line has a bull's-eye on its back every week from here on out, especially against an exotic defense like the Saints.
Following that, the Dolphins must then host the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens before the bye week. The Dolphins have had trouble defending big pass plays in the past, and the Ravens were known for that as their strength in 2012, so this could be an interesting matchup.
They still haven't even played one game against the New England Patriots.
After Week 9 against the Bengals, though, their schedule gets considerably easier. But that's looking way too far ahead at this point.
Are the Miami Dolphins ready to contend for a playoff spot in 2013?
They will lose a game at some point this season. The best thing the Dolphins could ask for is to lose that game early and grow from the loss so that they are playing their best football when it matters most.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.
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