At the start of the 2013 season, a hot-button question was which AFC East team was closest to contending with the New England Patriots for the division championship. Most seemed to agree it was the Miami Dolphins, who were as aggressive as any NFL team in reshaping their roster in the offseason.
But through seven weeks of the regular season, the picture looks a bit different than many projected.
First, the Patriots' stranglehold on the AFC East doesn't seem as strong as it has been for long stretches since 2001, a span in which they have posted a 61-16 record against division foes. They are coming off a surprising 30-27 overtime road loss to the New York Jets to drop to 5-2.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins opened the year with three straight wins, but have slid back to the pack with three straight losses, the latest a surprising setback to the visiting Buffalo Bills this past Sunday 23-21.
Could the Bills and Jets be further along than the Dolphins? And are the Patriots suddenly vulnerable?
Those are topical questions to ask as the Dolphins prepare to visit the Patriots on Sunday (1 p.m. ET), and NFL Nation Dolphins reporter James Walker and NFL Nation Patriots reporter Mike Reiss help us break it down:
Reiss: James, let's start by giving Patriots followers a feel for where things have broken down for the Dolphins.
Walker: Where do I start, Mike? Not much has gone right for the Dolphins since their 3-0 start. The biggest problems have been on offense. With the exception of last week against Buffalo, the running game was non-existent. That made the Dolphins one-dimensional and very pass-heavy. That also let opponents know they can pin their ears back and get after the quarterback. Miami has allowed 26 quarterback sacks in six games, and a majority occurred in the second halves and fourth quarters when the Dolphins quit early on the running game. The lack of pass protection and an inconsistent running game put a lot of pressure on second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who is trying too hard. He has seven turnovers -- five interceptions, two lost fumbles -- in the past three games. Tannehill has a lot of potential, but he's not ready to carry the Dolphins' offense by himself. The issues around him must improve, which is why the Dolphins traded this week for veteran offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie.
Mike, one of the biggest concerns for Miami this week is stopping Pro Bowl tight end Rob Gronkowski. How did Gronkowski look in his first game back and what do you expect in his second game?
Reiss: Gronkowski was an immediate difference-maker, playing 51 of 79 offensive snaps (including penalties). So the first thing to look at this week is just his workload, which should gradually increase. When healthy, Gronkowski seldom comes off the field. As for his production, all we have to do is look at how many times he was targeted by Tom Brady against the Jets -- 17 times. And, of course, he finished with the eight catches for 114 yards. The Patriots are obviously a better team with Gronkowski, and it showed up Sunday, specifically in the red zone where the space gets tight. Tell us more about the Dolphins' defense and how they might defend him.
Walker: My feeling is Miami will try to go conventional and let the linebackers and occasionally the safety cover Gronkowski. Dolphins safety Reshad Jones hasn't been great in coverage this season, but he's playing much better the past two weeks. I think the Dolphins should get creative with Gronkowski. One option is to have rookie defensive end and athletic No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan line up on Gronkowski at times. Jordan is long, athletic and can be physical with Gronkowski at the line of scrimmage. That would be a good curveball. According to defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle, Miami's primary focus is not to worry about the receptions but to prevent the vertical plays. The Dolphins want to keep Gronkowski in front of them.
Mike, New England's defense started fast but has allowed 57 points in the past two games. Have injuries caught up with this group?
Reiss: In a word, yes. It is still a good unit but naturally not the same without players like defensive tackle Vince Wilfork and linebacker Jerod Mayo, which has forced the coaching staff to shuffle things around. The Patriots were also without cornerback Aqib Talib on Sunday, and I think he's been their best defender this season. We'll see if he's back this week from a hip injury. Overall, it's still a well-coached unit and they create turnovers, as evidenced by their streak of 34 straight games with at least one. I'm sure one of the things that will be watched closely here in New England is what type of impact receiver Mike Wallace has on the game. Some followers of the team would have loved to see the Patriots sign him as a free agent, especially in light of the struggles the offense is having this season. How would you assess Wallace's impact in Miami? Are they happy with the signing?
Walker: It's been a work in progress, Mike. The sense I get is it's still a feeling out process with the coaches in terms of how to use Wallace to the best of his abilities. He's a unique receiver with speed. Yet, the Dolphins don't have enough pass protection to allow Wallace to run enough “nine routes” down the field. It hasn't always been a match. But Miami is starting to do a better job of getting Wallace the football in other ways. The Dolphins have run more screens, slants and reverses to keep him involved. Wallace has had his best games this year when he gets a couple of receptions early. That's happened against Indianapolis and Baltimore, which were Wallace's two 100-yard games. If the Dolphins want to have a chance of pulling off the upset, they need at least one or two big plays from Wallace in game.
Finally, Mike, the Patriots are 5-2 but don't look as dominant as previous years. The Dolphins are struggling. But is the AFC East as a whole closing the gap on New England this year?
Reiss: That's a good question, James, and I think this game Sunday will help us better answer it. The Patriots went down to the wire with the Bills in the season-opener and had two down-to-the-wire games with the Jets. If the same thing happens with the Dolphins, that would be some pretty good evidence to suggest that the gap in the division is indeed closing. And yet then, we are reminded of this time last year when every team in the division was 3-3 and we thought the gap had closed. Turns out that wasn't the case. That's why I view things more through a short-term lens and spotlight this as an important game for the Patriots from an AFC East perspective as they could improve to 3-1 in the division, with division games remaining at the Dolphins (Dec. 15) and home against the Bills (Dec. 29).