Miami Dolphins  

 

Miami Dolphins to challenge New England Patriots in AFC East?

In the video the Miami Dolphins posted of their postgame locker room Sunday, coach Joe Philbin could be seen incongruously using note cards for his jubilant remarks. In front of a giddy-looking owner and a gleeful reminder of some of the team's glory years in Nat Moore, Philbin ticked off the usual clichés. Complete team win. Focused only on themselves and nobody else. Looking forward to hosting the Atlanta Falcons. But then Philbin burst with a hint of the real thinking in South Florida:

"We've got a hell of a team in the making," he pronounced, to shouts of approval from the players.

Just as Philbin prepared so diligently for his speech that he had a crib sheet in hand, the Dolphins had meticulously laid the groundwork for their 24-20 road victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The game put on display the team the Dolphins believe is coming to fruition after a free agency spending spree that netted, among others, receiver Mike Wallace and cornerback Brent Grimes, and an active draft that saw Miami reshape its roster. The result Sunday was a second straight win away from home, giving the Dolphins a 2-0 start in Philbin's second year at the helm.

Given the circumstances -- the defense was able to hold off one of the league's best young quarterbacks in Andrew Luck in his home stadium, while the multi-dimensional offense posted 100 yards rushing as part of an effort that included Ryan Tannehill outdueling Luck -- it also offered a tantalizing possibility: The Dolphins might finally be the team complete enough to challenge the New England Patriots in the AFC East.

"The whole offseason was about resources -- they had the cap space and draft-pick resources to make a lot of moves and put pieces around the quarterback, and the quarterback is a year wiser," one AFC personnel executive said. "Then improve the pass rush. But the ascension of Reshad Jones at safety, paired with the addition of Grimes, has made the defense go from solid to pretty darn good."

That there is an opening for the Dolphins to close the gap with the Patriots is mostly because of the Patriots themselves. Tom Brady made his weekly radio show appearance Monday morning, taking the opportunity to lament the lack of execution that has bedeviled his offense so far. Brady, who had one of the worst statistical performances of his career in last week's ugly win over the New York Jets, took care not to single out his receivers, who so frustrated him on "Thursday Night Football" that Brady talked later about having to better control his emotions.

Nobody, least of all Brady, is used to seeing the Patriots struggle to beat teams with rookie quarterbacks, as the Patriots have done in each of their first two games. But with injuries to Danny Amendola and Rob Gronkowski depleting the already-inexperienced receiving corps, the Patriots' shortcomings are as plain to see as Brady's rising blood pressure. For their undefeated record so far, they probably most have their schedule to thank. This Sunday, they get the drama-filled, 0-2 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Still, there is the creeping suspicion that the Pats might've ever so slightly declined from their usual perch, and that the Dolphins are gaining on them. The last time the Dolphins made the playoffs -- the only time since 2002 -- was 2008, when Brady went down in the opener with a season-ending knee injury. But that was a one-off. The Dolphins haven't managed a winning campaign since then; it remains the only season since 2002 in which the Patriots failed to make the playoffs. During that stretch, indignities have piled up around the Dolphins like so many grains of sand -- empty seats, the rapid departures of Dan Marino (from a brief front-office role) and Nick Saban, a quixotic pursuit of Jim Harbaugh. The recent success, maybe not surprisingly, has been greeted with a guarded sense of optimism.

"I mean, they said we were the best team in the division," Dolphins linebacker Philip Wheeler said Monday. "They said that on one of the channels. I think we can be. That's what we're shooting for."

The next three games will say much more about the Dolphins' chances to end a long stretch of disappointment. The Dolphins last started 3-0 in 2002. After opening the season with two road wins, they host the Falcons, then hit the road again to play the New Orleans Saints before returning home to host the defending champion Baltimore Ravens. After the bye in Week 6, their division games finally begin with a home contest against the Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins do not play the Patriots until Oct. 27, when both Gronkowski and Amendola could be back in the lineup.

Still, keeping pace with potent offenses is what general manager Jeff Ireland's spending spree was all about. The Dolphins put skill-position players around Tannehill, particularly in signing Wallace to be the deep threat the Dolphins have lacked and to take advantage of Tannehill's maturation. They acquired more pieces to shore up the strength of the team -- the defensive front -- and got Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe to upgrade their coverage, physicality and blitz ability. The result was most obvious when it appeared Luck was on the verge of mounting the ninth fourth-quarter comebacker of his short career Sunday. Grimes intercepted the Indy QB in the end zone midway through the fourth quarter. Then, with less than two minutes remaining and the Colts driving again, Wheeler sacked Luck on fourth down to effectively end the game.

"Their ability to rush the passer and not feel exposed in coverage has been a big boost," the AFC personnel exec said.

During their long, fallow period of ineptitude, the Dolphins were so identity-less that one year, they mounted a marketing campaign constructed not around star players -- there were none -- but the visages of front office executives, including Miami's former football chieftain, Bill Parcells.

Parcells is gone now, and so is the Dolphins' facelessness. The object in the Patriots' rearview mirror might be closer than it appears.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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