The Miami Dolphins aren't the first team to enter a prime-time game with big expectations only to walk out with bigger disappointment.
Their season should not be defined by a blowout loss to the New Orleans Saints, 38-17, on Monday Night Football.
They were outplayed in every phase, and outclassed in every facet by an organization that's been playing and winning big games since 2006—but this can be a learning experience for the Dolphins.
For starters, the Dolphins were faced with their first true test of Murphy's law: Everything that could go wrong, went wrong. That happens sometimes when you face off with a living legend in Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
Perhaps, then, you could say they simply fell victim to Brees' law of offense: Anything that could be exposed, was exposed.
Brees continued his lethal early season pace by going 30-of-39 for 413 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. This was the Dolphins' biggest test of the season yet, but this was not their first test of the season. They have already held their own against talented quarterbacks in Andrew Luck and Matt Ryan.
Miami has a good defense—just not on Monday night.
Give the Saints a ton of credit. They did a fantastic job of matching up running back Darren Sproles on linebackers and safeties, finding ways to get him involved.
It's not as though the Dolphins just let Sproles do whatever he wanted—even if it looked that way at times.
Philbin on Sproles: "We tried a variety of different coverages. We tried zone, we tried man, we tried some pressures. Sproles was very good"— Andrew Abramson (@AbramsonPBP) October 1, 2013
And it's not as though Sproles was the only one doing it to them. Tight end Jimmy Graham ran straight up the seam with combination routes that would have forced any safety into a pick-your-poison situation.
Cornerback Nolan Carroll had Brees dead to rights, ready to intercept the pass when he jumped a route down the left sideline near the pylon, but he simply misjudged the ball and watched it go behind him for the touchdown.
Cover 2 from the Dolphins. That should have been a pick.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) October 1, 2013
Before Monday night, the Dolphins had held their opponents to an average of 17.7 points per game and 263.3 passing yards per game. Monday night, however, they doubled their average points per game allowed and gave up an extra 133 passing yards.
Those weaknesses may only last as long as the injuries to key players.
Defensive end Cameron Wake was absent on Monday night, and so, too, was the immense pressure he provides off the edge. The Dolphins were also without cornerback Dimitri Patterson on Monday night, and have been without cornerback Will Davis, who looked prepared to be a starter during training camp, all season.
Even despite all those absences and the confluence of circumstances working against them, the game didn't truly get out of hand for the Dolphins until the second half—even if the writing was on the wall in the first 30 minutes of play.
Make no mistake, though, the offense earns its share of the blame for Week 4's performance.
|Quarterback||Team||Sacked||Sack %||Fumbles lost|
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked four times, all in the second half. He has been sacked 18 times on the season, yet has somehow managed to be one of the top 10 most efficient quarterbacks in the league through the first three games of the season.
That's a testament to an iron will and balls of steel on Tannehill's behalf to not only continue to get up after repeated hits, but to keep stepping into the pocket and delivering accurate passes.
Those accurate passes were few and far between on Monday night.
Mike Sherman's reaction to Tannehill's interception: pic.twitter.com/J1ApI2kVKf— Adam Kuperstein (@AKuperstein) October 1, 2013
It looked like Tannehill might finally be joining the rank-and-file of young quarterbacks like Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and others. But while Monday night didn't deliver him completely from that status, it did serve as a reminder that Tannehill remains a work in progress.
As mentioned, he was under fire all night, and it came mostly as a result of a four-man rush from the Saints. The Dolphins offensive line needs to be able to block a four-man rush to allow plays to develop, or else Tannehill will be running for his life all season.
Even in one of the Dolphins' worst prime-time performances in recent memory, there were some positives.
Yet again, in the face of constant pressure, Tannehill continued to deliver throws from the pocket. Tannehill kept the Dolphins in the game until halftime, but two straight 3-and-outs to start the second half were answered by two quick scores from the Saints to put the game out of reach.
They then had to abandon the running game, which had been working for them up to that point—they finished with 19 carries for 115 yards and a touchdown, but only three carries for 19 yards in the second half.
That said, the Dolphins season will not be defined by this loss, nor by any minor moral victories that could be gleaned from it. Their season will be defined by how they respond to this loss.
Most Dolphins prognosticators—myself included—were predicting the Dolphins to be no better than 2-2 at this point in the season. They sit at 3-1, but with some difficult opponents ahead, the Dolphins don't have much time to wait before getting back on track.
They host a Baltimore Ravens team that is reeling after quarterback Joe Flacco threw five interceptions against the Bills on Sunday, and then the bye week allows them to adjust before a meeting with those same Bills and then their first road division game of the season, against the New England Patriots. In fact, not until after Week 9 against the Cincinnati Bengals are the Dolphins truly "out of the woods" with regard to their schedule.
After these next four, though, there are some real cupcakes.
If the Dolphins can weather the storm of their next few opponents without losing too much ground in the process, they are still very much alive and well in the AFC playoff race.
Erik Frenz is also a Patriots/AFC East writer for Boston.com. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand or via team news releases.