MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- As they entered the locker room late Sunday night, Chad Pennington pulled Chad Henne aside for something the veteran backup quarterback felt the young starter needed to hear right away.
It had been one of those games that leave emotions raw -- a close, back-and-forth battle with a fierce division rival that wasn't decided until the final seconds. And when it was, the Miami Dolphins had the first blemish on their record -- a 31-23 loss to the New York Jets -- which meant there was little cause for any of their players or coaches to feel encouraged.
Pennington had found one, though.
"You really got better tonight," he told Henne. "I know it's a tough loss; it stings like crazy. But I want you to carry the confidence into the next game that you got better and you're getting better every game."
The Dolphins are 2-1, just like the Jets and New England Patriots. What they know for sure is what the other two teams know -- that the winner of the AFC East is likely to be determined in a dog fight that will play out for the next 14 weeks, including next Monday night's showdown here against the Patriots.
What the Dolphins weren't so sure about before Sunday night was whether they had the quarterback that could give them a chance of coming out on top. They are now ... or at least they should be.
In his third year on the roster and first full season as the Dolphins' starter, Henne hadn't exactly inspired a whole lot of confidence through the preseason or the first two games of the regular season, victories at Buffalo and Minnesota that came largely on the strength of Miami's defense. His physical talent, especially his arm strength, has never been in question. But it was known that, before resigning as the Dolphins' vice president of football operations to become a consultant to the team just prior to the start of the season, Bill Parcells privately expressed disappointment in Henne's progress. It also was known that there was growing concern after the first two games that Henne wasn't as sound as he needed to be with his fundamentals -- that the progression of most of his reads and the delivery of most of his passes weren't fast enough, and that too many of his throws were inaccurate.
That was the Henne on display in the early part of the Jets game, something he would later blame on being "a little anxious, a little excited to get in there and get some plays going."
Once he settled down, however, Henne looked like a different quarterback. He finished with 26 completions in 44 attempts for 363 yards and two touchdowns, and showed tremendous poise when it counted the most in the face of a Jets defense that presents a multitude of challenges with a wide variety of blitzes and coverages.
First, Henne helped Miami rally from a 14-0 deficit, mainly on the strength of repeated connections with receiver Brandon Marshall, who finished with 10 catches. Henne began the second half by leading Miami on a 6-minute, 73-yard drive that ended with an 11-yard touchdown pass to Marshall to give the Dolphins their only lead, 17-14.
Then, after the Jets took an eight-point advantage with 1:55 left, Henne calmly drove the Dolphins 64 yards to the New York 5. On fourth-and-goal with 27 seconds remaining, he tried hooking up with tight end Anthony Fasano in the end zone. Safety Eric Smith reached around to tip the ball and Drew Coleman intercepted the pass to end the game.
"By the production they had, he did a great job," Smith said of Henne. "He looked like Tom Brady out there throwing the ball against us. It was like, wherever he wanted to go with the ball, he was putting it in there. He definitely looked confident back there. It looked like he knew where his receivers were going to be, he knew what defense we were in and where the guy was going to be open. He did a great job making his reads and putting the ball on the money."
Said Pennington: "He took a step, he really did. (Against the Jets' defense) every snap's different. With the pressure that they like to put on the quarterback, he saw the field really well. He led some drives, made some tough throws, some big throws down the field. Even on his incompletions, the ball was going to the right spot. So I was proud of him."
If Pennington sounds like a teacher that feels as if he has just had a major breakthrough with a student, he should. In his 11th season, Pennington has one major responsibility: To do everything possible to enhance Henne's development. As they watch "hours and hours" of tape together, the teacher notices the student's growing comfort with what he sees.
The biggest hurdle has been getting Henne to transfer that feeling onto the field.
"I've been trying to help him understand that, if he'll let his physical talent take over and really trust what he sees, good things will happen because of his arm ability," Pennington said. "I stress to him to not doubt himself, not doubt what we sees, but really trust what he sees and make the throws because he can really make those throws. I just think as an athlete, and especially as a young athlete, you just have to work through the negative self-talk and the self-doubt that we all experience in any profession and really trust your preparation."
"We lost the football game; that's not good," Sparano said. "But at the end of this whole thing, that guy showed improvement. You see some of the back-shoulder throws he made, some of the balls he threw in the middle of the field. I thought there was good improvement there."
They've got answers
» The Pittsburgh Steelers, because for all that Charlie Batch did Sunday (and it was plenty) to help survive another game without Ben Roethlisberger, the real story of their 3-0 start continues to be the dominance of their defense. The Steelers might very well be the best team in the NFL, thanks to a unit that has forced 10 turnovers, registered 10 sacks, and not allowed a 100-yard rusher despite facing Atlanta's Michael Turner and Tennessee's Chris Johnson in the first two weeks.
» The Kansas City Chiefs, because there is clearly a full buy-in to the program that coach Todd Haley and general manager Scott Pioli have put together to return the franchise to its long lost glory years. As a rookie coach last year, Haley came off mostly as a short-tempered screamer who seemed to lack the maturity necessary to see the big picture and keep the program on track. Now, with the additions of defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, there is better instruction to go along with Haley's motivational tactics. Quarterback Matt Cassel still is a work in progress, but 3-0 is the kind of progress on which he and the team can build a contender.
» The Cincinnati Bengals, because they can lean on their defense and special teams when their offense -- which supposedly was going to be their strength this season -- struggles. That was the case in their 20-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers, the 13th opponent that the defense held to 13 or fewer points in the last 26 games. Carson Palmer threw interceptions on two of the Bengals' first five possessions, and nearly had four other passes picked off. Punter Kevin Huber placed three kicks inside the Carolina 5.
They've got questions
» The Jacksonville Jaguars, because they're terrible, and their coach, Jack Del Rio, is the first to admit he has no answers for how to right their ship.
Next man up
» The San Francisco 49ers, because they seem lost in every possible way, and it's hard to see how Mike Singletary is going get what once seemed like the most-talented team in the NFC West to live up to its potential. Even his firing of offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye was handled awkwardly, coming less than 24 hours after a public declaration that his job was safe.
» The freeze-the-kicker-an-instant-before-his-kick timeout tactic might have run its course. New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton, known for making many more right decisions than wrong ones, got burned when his timeout wiped out Matt Bryant's miss that would have given the Saints another shot at a victory in overtime.
» What happened to the Carolina Panthers' dominant running game? And where did that strong pass rush we saw in the preseason go?
» From the this-is-not-your-father's-NFL department: The Dolphins debuted their LIV Nightclub suite, a spinoff of the famous South Beach establishment at the Fountainebleau. For roughly $800, you get valet parking, access to the club, and the chance to mingle with the "beautiful people" while watching the game as stunning young women in super-tight shirts and ultra-short shorts serve food and beverages. The place looked packed, although it's uncertain how many of the patrons paid full attention to what was happening on the field.
Four intriguing matchups for Week 4
Washington at Philadelphia: Donovan McNabb's return to Lincoln Financial Field makes this an obvious must-see, but there are additional elements that have increased its marquee value. One, Michael Vick is emerging from a triumphant debut as the Eagles' official new replacement for McNabb. Two, the Redskins are reeling from an embarrassing loss to St. Louis.
New England at Miami: The Patriots found their offense again. Although it was against the Buffalo Bills' dreadful defense, Brady has to like the fact that the new emphasis on the tight end is coming vs. another opponent that doesn't defend very well against that position (see Dustin Keller's two touchdown catches Sunday night). Henne should again enjoy another big night, but will he blink if he gets into a shootout with one of the greatest quarterbacks of them all?