By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Prior to Thursday, nobody was considering the Miami Dolphins to be a Super Bowl contender. Still, they were a team on the right track.
They finished last year winning nine of their final 11 regular-season games, earning a playoff spot. They put together a solid draft. Head coach Adam Gase has thus far avoided embarrassing himself at any level after taking over for the oft-overwhelmed Joe Philbin.
To be sure, the Dolphins were not a real challenger to the Patriots in the AFC East, but they still figured to make it somewhat of a competition.
Now, in the wake of the Ryan Tannehill injury, the Dolphins train appears to have been derailed.
That may seem to be a bit of an overreaction, considering Tannehill is firmly planted in the second tier of NFL quarterbacks. Still, in 13 games last year, he put together a solid season. He ranked eighth in yards per attempt and 12th in passer rating, he limited his sacks (2.9 per game from 2012-15; 2.2 per game in 2016), and he posted the best completion percentage of his career (67.1 percent).
He put together a solid performance in his lone game against New England last season, completing 32 of 45 passes (71.1 percent) for 387 touchdowns, two touchdowns and two picks — the last INT coming in the end zone on an attempt to tie the game in the final seconds.
Tannehill also owns a rare distinction among active NFL quarterbacks in that he has three career victories over Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Among NFL quarterbacks under the age of 30, he’s the only member of that club. (Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger each have three wins against New England, as do Eli Manning and Joe Flacco if you include postseason.)
The quarterback was not to blame for either of Miami’s losses to New England last season, as the Dolphins allowed the Patriots to score 31 points with the combination of Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett under center in Week 2. Tom Brady threw for a casual 276 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions when the Patriots scored 35 points against Miami in the regular-season finale.
Clearly and obviously, even with a healthy Tannehill, the Patriots were going to be overwhelming favorites in the AFC East this season. But if Tannehill is lost for the season (he’s reportedly faced with the decision to have season-ending surgery or to rest for six to eight weeks and hope for proper healing), then the Patriots appear to be on track to go 6-0 in the division if they so choose.
Whoever the replacement options may be — Matt Moore, Jay Cutler, Colin Kaepernick, etc. — will not be someone who really presents a tremendous challenge for Belichick’s defense.
The Jets appear to be in full-on tank mode for the No. 1 pick, while the Bills haven’t exactly made moves that would make anyone believe they’ve ascended to the Patriots’ level.
Over the years, the Patriots’ divisional dominance has been widely dismissed as simply being a product of annually facing subpar competition. The reality of that assessment is that on average since realignment 2002, the AFC East as a whole has been a middle-of-the-pack division. However this year outside of the Patriots, the division is shaping up to be one of football’s worst.