They are a long, long way from Mercury Morris’ neighborhood, but the Miami Dolphins are indeed one of just three teams in the NFL still carrying a perfect record.
Are they for real?
“We’re on the right track,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill told reporters this week. “We’ve kind of established the right patterns the way we want to, the right practices that are going to take us to where we want to go. But we’re three games in. It really doesn’t mean anything at this point. We just have to stay true to the path that we’re on and keep getting better.”
In one sense, it’s easy to question the legitimacy of Miami’s 3-0 start. They beat the quarterback-depleted Titans in a game delayed several hours by lightning. They won against a rookie quarterback cutting his teeth with the Jets. They beat Jon Gruden’s winless team. And in each case, they survived with one-possession margins of victory.
Then again, there’s no need to apologize for beating whomever is on your schedule in the unpredictable, any-given-Sunday environs of the NFL. And winning close games means you won, suggesting a certain sort of mettle.
Makes it a perfect time for a litmus test.
To achieve the franchise’s first 4-0 start in 23 years, the Dolphins only need to beat a desperate Patriots (1-2) team at Gillette Stadium, which has pretty much been a House of Horrors over the years.
Miami hasn’t won in Foxborough since 2008, which makes it nine L’s in a row. And 2008, when Miami foiled Bill Belichick’s defense with sizzle from its “Wildcat” formation, was also the last time the Patriots didn’t win the AFC East.
No wonder this matchup looms as a chance for quite a statement. Miami’s impressive team speed, brought to life with a barrage of big plays and coach Adam Gase’s use of his own gadget calls, has a chance to take advantage of New England’s slow, 28th-ranked defense, which is allowing 406.3 yards a game. And Tannehill, off to the best start of his career (121.8 passer rating, fourth in the NFL), comes in hotter than Tom Brady.
Pop quiz: Which two quarterbacks are an NFL-best 10-1 in their last 11 starts?
You might have guessed Carson Wentz is one. Tannehill’s the other, and getting better in connecting on deep passes, which used to be quite the struggle.
Still, all of the markers – like the 13 points Miami has allowed in the first half and the 31 points scored in the fourth quarter, both ranked second in the NFL – won’t mean much if they don’t kick the Patriots while they are down.
Sure, it’s just September. But beating New England would give Miami a three-game lead over the Patriots in the division race, in addition to the feel-good boost of momentum.
Yet Cameron Wake, the crafty defensive end who sets a locker room tone, tried to keep it in check.
What would a win in New England do for you?
“The same thing a win in New York did for me,” Wake replied. “It’s just another game. It’s the most important game of the year because it’s the next game. Next week will be the next most important game … and the week after that and two weeks ago and so on and so forth. It’s just another game, another opponent.”
That’s the spirit. But …
Other items of interest as Week 4 rolls on:
Who’s hot: Drew Brees. If it seems the 39-year-old Saints quarterback is always on the verge of breaking some NFL record it’s because, well, it’s true. Last week, when he produced five TDs to lead the Saints (2-1) to a thrilling overtime win at Atlanta, Brees set the mark for career completions (6,326) — which is even more legit when considering he’s leading the league in that category as part of a sizzling start to his 18th season. He’s completing 80.6 percent of his passes (104-of-129, 1,078 yards, 8 TDs, 0 INTs, 122.2 passer rating), and if that pace holds up it would be the best mark of his career. The next big record? Brees heads into Sunday’s game at the New York Giants needing 417 yards to break Peyton Manning’s mark for career passing yards (71,940). If not this week, then maybe it falls in Week 5 before a home crowd at the Superdome and on a Monday night national stage. It’s just a matter of time. And hey, here’s another marker to note: With his two rushing TDs at Atlanta, Brees is one QB sneak away from tying a personal mark for a season in that category … with a whole lot of season left.
Pressure’s on: Bill O’Brien. The Texans head to Indy seeking their first win of the season, while carrying an NFL-longest nine-game losing streak. Sore spots include red zone woes, penalties and as the coach who calls the offensive plays himself contends, bad play-calling. Maybe this will be the week Deshaun Watson regains the magic displayed before his rookie season was short-circuited by a torn ACL. He’s had flashes, but also a tendency to press. His three interceptions this season have come on ill-advised throws to the end zone.
Key matchup: Antonio Brown vs. Brandon Carr. Look who’s ranked as the NFL’s No. 1 defense? The Ravens – even while star cornerback Jimmy Smith serves out a four-game suspension. This ranking must be proved on a weekly basis, because the last time Baltimore was on national TV, its defense was shredded by Andy Dalton, AJ Green & Co. The Steelers – even while star running back Le’Veon Bell holds out – will test Baltimore from all angles on Sunday night at Heinz Field. Brown, the NFL’s most targeted receiver this season and a time-honored Ravens killer, represents just part of the problem for Wink Martindale’s D.
Next man up: C.J. Beathard. With Jimmy Garoppolo done in by a torn ACL, the 49ers are having a “back to the future” experience. It was Beathard who kept the seat warm until Jimmy G. was ready to drive the offense last year. Uh-oh. Beathard had a paltry 69.2 passer rating as a rookie in 2017. Now he’s essential to efforts to salvage an entire season … that seems destined to be defined by a hard-luck September. Garoppolo’s injury came 22 days after running back Jerick McKinnon, the team’s biggest offseason free agent signee, tore an ACL. Beathard will be hard-pressed to outgun Philip Rivers on Sunday in L.A., but at least he embodies a footnote in facing a Chargers franchise that his grandfather, Bobby, once served as a Hall of Fame-bound GM.
Rookie watch: Baker Mayfield. After an electric NFL debut released the free beer in Cleveland, the No. 1 pick overall makes his first start on Sunday with a chance to “plant the flag” in the Black Hole as the Browns try winning two in a row for the first time since 2014. Mayfield completed 74 percent of his throws and energized the Browns offense with his gunslinger flow and pinpoint accuracy against the Jets. Now just do it again. Growing pains await, not to mention the chance for opposing D-coordinators to assemble a “book” on how to best defend Mayfield. The next test comes against a winless squad desperate for its first win. For Mayfield, part of the deal is to stay poised. Being reckless or trying to do too much won’t cut it.
If the playoffs were today… The Bears (2-1) and Bucs (2-1) would be playing at Soldier Field to advance to the next round? Of course, it’s early. Yet both are surprising NFC division leaders (or co-leaders, in Tampa Bay’s case) fueled by factors – Khalil Mack and Ryan Fitzpatrick — that would not have been predicted a few weeks ago. Here’s to contrasting styles: The Bears have covered for young quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with a stingy defense. The Bucs have sparkled with “FitzMagic” – the journeyman quarterback who is the first in NFL history to pass for 400 yards in three consecutive games. Imagine that. Fitzpatrick has topped Marino, Favre, Montana and Manning, and then some, in at least one regard. No, this won’t be the week that Jameis Winston gets his job back.
Stomach for an upset: Seahawks at Cardinals. Arizona’s rookie coach, Steve Wilks, benched star running back David Johnson in crunch time last week (3 years, $38.1 million) to send a message of accountability. Now, while seeking his first NFL win, he’s rolling out rookie quarterback Josh Rosen for his first NFL start. So much for Sam Bradford (1 year, $20 million) providing a veteran cushion. The Cardinals are three-point underdogs, but recent history suggests that they match up well. Since 2015, Big Red is 3-2-1 against the 12s.
Did you notice? Since melting down in the red zone in the season-opening loss at Philadelphia (five possessions, on touchdown), the Falcons offense has been perfect – eight possessions, eight touchdowns – in back-to-back home games after crossing the 20-yard line to get into striking range.
Stat’s the fact: While Khalil Mack is tied for the NFL lead with four sacks and his Bears defense leads the league with 14 sacks, the team that traded him away ranks dead-last with three sacks. And Mack not only has more sacks than Oakland but his NFL-high three forced fumbles is three times the Raiders’ tally, and he has just as many interceptions (one) as his former team. Bad trade, Jon Gruden.