- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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A pair of up-and-coming teams? Check.
Two rookie quarterbacks taken in the top eight picks of this year’s NFL draft? Check.
First-year head coaches overcoming major obstacles? Check that off the list, as well.
The Miami Dolphins and Indianapolis Colts have plenty of similarities. Both teams should feel as though they’re looking in the mirror when they face off Sunday at Lucas Oil Stadium. It's a meeting of two young teams that are building through the draft and are ahead of schedule.
The Dolphins and Colts are overachieving beyond expectations. In ESPN.com’s initial Power Rankings in Week 1, Miami was ranked 27th and Indianapolis was 32nd. Much of that was due to the teams combining for an 8-24 record in 2011.
Yet, this year's game at the midpoint of the season has playoff implications. Miami (4-3) and Indianapolis (4-3) already have matched last year’s combined win total and are in position to contend for a wild-card playoff berth in the AFC. The winner on Sunday will move one step closer to the playoffs and own the important head-to-head tiebreaker.
“I told the players, ‘There’s nothing better in the National Football League than coming to work in November and December and ... having meaningful games,’” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “It’s a lot of fun. It gets your juices going as it should.”
The Colts and Dolphins are playing solid football and winning close games. Six of their eight wins have come by seven points or less.
Colts linebacker Jerrell Freeman says only outsiders should be surprised.
“You [media people] are surprised,” Freeman told reporters this week. “We knew we would come in and get things together, make some plays, get out there. Miami and us, I guess we were at the bottom of the power rankings coming in. We really didn’t think too much of it.”
Much of the success for Miami and Indianapolis starts at quarterback.
In today’s NFL, if you have a quarterback, you have a chance. And both Andrew Luck of the Colts and Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins have put their teams in position to contend in the first half of the season. Both quarterbacks have started every game this year and won four starts apiece.
Luck, the No. 1 overall pick this past April, has lived up to his lofty billing. He’s thrown for 1,971 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has a 74.6 passer rating in his first seven NFL starts.
Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick, has thrown for 1,472 yards, four touchdowns and six interceptions. He has a 75.8 passer rating, which is slightly higher than Luck’s rating. Tannehill is working to overcome left knee and quad injuries, but he expects to play on Sunday.
According to Tannehill, the two rookies first met at Peyton Manning’s passing camp in the summer of 2011 and built a friendship from there, which continued to build during the draft process. Now, both players will compete on the field for the first time.
“I think it’s interesting -- it’s a storyline as I’m sure you guys will make it,” Tannehill said. “I think it’s exciting for a lot of people, but, as players on the field, you’re not really thinking about the other quarterback of the other team no matter who it is.”
Dolphins running back Reggie Bush understands the meaning of the first Tannehill-Luck matchup.
“I’m sure it will be really fun for the fans -- seeing two rookie quarterbacks going head-to-head,” Bush said. “Obviously, two guys who are going to have long careers in this league. Two special players, and hopefully Tannehill wins.”
The Dolphins and Colts were expected to be too young to compete this year and at least one year away. Both teams are building through the draft and relying on a lot of first- and second-year players.
In particular, Luck and Tannehill are not going through huge NFL growing pains in their first year. Luck was considered the most NFL-ready quarterback in the draft, so his production is not a huge surprise. But Tannehill was considered very raw with just 19 collegiate starters.
“That’s just part of it. You’re always going to have people that are rooting for you (and) people that doubt you,” Tannehill said. “That’s just the nature of the game. That’s the nature of the business we’re in.”
Both teams clearly are headed in the right direction. But the winner of Sunday’s game will prove which organization is a little further along. One team will have an inside track to the postseason in a weak AFC conference. The loser will fall back to .500.
Perhaps Sunday’s game is the start of a new rivalry in the AFC.
Quarterback Peyton Manning, formerly of Indianapolis, and Tom Brady of the New England Patriots staged a strong rivalry for more than a decade. With Luck and Tannehill both looking to be long-term solutions, Colts-Dolphins matchups have the potential to replace Colts-Patriots with many big games in the AFC over the next 7-10 years.
It’s one thing to surprise people. But it is another challenge for a young, overachieving team to know how to handle early success. The team that can best do the latter probably will have more success Sunday and in the second half of the season.
“These guys aren’t dumb. We all know what’s at stake,” Bush said. “We all know where we’re at. We all know where we can be and we know our potential. That’s the mentality I think. Guys are just working hard to get there and the fact that it’s real and we have a shot, guys know that.”
3dField Yates and Rich Cimini