NEW ORLEANS -- The Dolphins defense made Darren Sproles look like an MVP candidate. The Dolphins receivers had trouble simply catching the ball — when they weren’t running into each other.
But the biggest reason the Saints are still undefeated and the Dolphins are not is this: Ryan Tannehill couldn’t bail out his team this time.
Tannehill turned the ball over four times — with two leading directly to Saints touchdowns — and the Dolphins were spanked 38-17 by New Orleans in front of a nationally televised audience.
Oh, the Saints (4-0) ran away with the game in the second half, scoring touchdowns on four out of five possessions — including two on back-to-back offensive plays.
But long before the wheels fell off, the Dolphins (3-1) actually had the ball with a chance to go into the locker room ahead.
That’s when Tannehill made the big mistake he has largely avoided this season.
The second-year quarterback stared down Brian Hartline, allowing Jabari Greer to jump the route and make the pick.
“They were huge,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said of the turnovers. “While we hadn’t played great up to that point in time, we were hanging around. It was a big giveaway.”
The ill-timed turnover — which had offensive coordinator Mike Sherman literally holding his head — was an absolute gift for the opportunistic Saints.
Drew Brees hooked up with Sproles on a 13-yard touchdown pass, and the game was effectively over before it reached the midway point.
Playing without Cameron Wake, who missed his first game as a pro because of injury, the Dolphins had no answer for Brees.
He was masterful, tossing four touchdown passes and going over 400 yards passing on the night he eclipsed John Elway for fourth place on the NFL career completions list.
Jimmy Graham, the former University of Miami big man, surpassed 100 yards receiving and caught two touchdowns. Sproles ran wild, totaling 178 all-purpose yards.
And the Dolphins couldn’t keep up — and Tannehill was a major reason. He had a fumble to go along with three interceptions.
“We’re not happy,” Tannehill said. “Obviously, you never want to perform like that in any situation.”
It’s not like he had a ton of help. Mike Wallace, in his return home, dropped a possible touchdown pass down the right sidelines.
The Dolphins’ pass protection was shaky again, allowing four sacks on the night.
And the defense couldn’t stop Brees and Sproles, regardless of the down and distance.
The Dolphins tried everything — zone coverage, man coverage and blitzes. None of it worked.
On the second play from scrimmage, the two hooked up on a wheel route that went for 48 yards, including 32 after the catch. On the play, Reshad Jones was beaten so badly that he wasn’t even on the screen.
“The guy’s shifty,” Jones said. “He’s quick, explosive. He made plays that we didn’t make.”
Sproles was rewarded with a 5-yard touchdown run, capping a lightning-quick scoring drive that covered 82 yards on six plays and 3:08.
The Dolphins responded with a nice drive of their own, covering 72 yards before Daniel Thomas was dropped behind the line on third-and-short. Caleb Sturgis, predictably, boomed through a 34-yard field goal, and the Dolphins were on the scoreboard.
Then, things went sideways. First, Tannehill coughed up the ball in Saints territory — his third lost fumble in four weeks.
And then, Jamar Taylor — in his first NFL game — was forced into action when Nolan Carroll went to the sidelines with an ankle injury. The Saints exploited it immediately, with Brees connecting with Graham on a leaping, 27-yard touchdown catch.
The Saints were only in that position because they converted a third-and-20 — on a screen pass to Sproles.
Yet the Dolphins still had life. Marcus Thigpen took a check-down pass 50 yards, leading to a 5-yard touchdown run by Lamar Miller.
And when the Dolphins made a stop, it looked like they might turn things around. Instead, Tannehill turned the ball over again.