The Dolphins have a good quarterback in Ryan Tannehill, and everything we’ve seen so far and saw again on Sunday is testament to that fact. But the Colts have a great quarterback in Andrew Luck.
And when all else is equal, when the teams that surround these two blossoming quarterbacks are still a bit flawed, great will usually triumph over good. That’s why the Dolphins lost this one 23-20.
That’s why Miami’s three-game win streak, which was the longest in the AFC, is a memory now.
That’s why those fanciful playoff hopes Dolphins fans were nurturing the past couple of weeks might have been a bit premature.
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Luck’s great can be enough to hide a terrible run defense, a spotty offensive line and even two missed field goals by usually reliable Adam Vinatieri.
Tannehill’s good can keep the Dolphins close but might not be enough to overcome a secondary that has been inconsistent overall and bad against excellent quarterbacks. Miami’s rookie still cannot hide the flaws in Miami’s pass rush or the growing unreliability of the running game.
Great out of Luck can make the Colts look better than they really are.
Good from Tannehill means the Dolphins still have to put more talent around him.
“They deserved to win the game,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “They played better than us. They coached better than we did. They played better than we did. They deserved to win the game.”
Tannehill did almost everything he needed to do, short of a last-minute rally, to help his team win this one. He completed almost 58 percent of his passes (22 of 38) for a ton of yards (290) and threw a touchdown while avoiding any major mistakes. It was a good day.
But it paled because Luck was great.
He completed 62 percent of his passes while breaking the rookie record for most passing yards in a game with 433. He had two touchdown passes, might have had a couple more if his receivers hadn’t dropped them and, oh by the way, he torched the Dolphins on third down.
The Colts converted an unbelievable 13 of 19 third-down plays as Luck danced around whatever much or little pass rush the Dolphins could muster and repeatedly found open receivers beyond the first-down sticks.
And Luck did this against a Miami defense that previously was the best in the NFL on third down.
“His play today was superb,” Indy interim coach Bruce Arians said of Luck. “It was Pro Bowl-caliber play.”
On his elevator ride to the locker room after the game, Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman marveled at Luck’s ability to escape the pass rush, extend plays and still deliver the football accurately, time after time after time.
Philbin acknowledged Luck but also recognized that Colts receivers and offensive linemen did damage.
“Their quarterback played well on third down. Their receivers got open. They protected well enough. They did a good job,” the coach said. “We didn’t have very many good answers — [13 of 19] is a very good day at the office on third down.”
And that brings us to a major issue the Dolphins faced Sunday and will continue to face against excellent quarterbacks: The pass defense isn’t playoff-caliber.
Yes, Miami’s secondary can be very good against Mark Sanchez. It can keep Sam Bradford out of the end zone. It can even prosper against Andy Dalton when the players in the front end sack Dalton three times and hurry him so much his red hair catches fire.
But this group needs more upgrading.
I would suggest Richard Marshall, out a month with back issues, could bring that upgrade, but he wasn’t exactly playing like Deion Sanders when he was out there.
Upgrade can come in other ways, and one approach is to improve the pass rush.
Yes, Luck was rushed on several occasions. There were times he completed passes he launched just as he was clobbered by Cameron Wake. But Wake was seemingly the only Dolphins pass-rusher getting pressure on Luck.
And having only one pass-rusher applying consistent pressure is not going to be a winning formula against Luck or Tom Brady or many other elite quarterbacks.
“We thought discipline in our pass rush would be better,” Philbin said. “When you’re playing against [Luck], that’s absolutely critical — keeping him in the pocket.
“He made a couple of throws on the run. We weren’t detailed enough and disciplined enough in our rush lanes. Again, that wasn’t the whole problem. Sometimes we didn’t get there fast enough.”
Sometimes the Dolphins did everything right but still couldn’t finish the play. That was the case when Luck threw an ill-advised pass into cornerback Sean Smith’s hands but still nothing good happened for Miami.
“He had his hands on it,” Philbin said, “no doubt.”
Smith had the interception in his hands with 2:59 to play and Miami trailing by three, but he dropped the ball as he hit the ground. The Dolphins would have been in field-goal range if Smith had he held on.
“It would have been an easy play for us if the offense had gained that field position,” Smith admitted. “But I didn’t make it, and that’s what happened.
“He was throwing on a cross route, but it got tipped and I had to redirect to come back and get it. I tried to dive and get it, but it hit the ground.”
Smith had a tough day. Aside from the dropped interception he also gave up a touchdown. But he didn’t lose the game. No one player on the Dolphins lost this game. Truth is, the Dolphins still had a chance to win when they got the ball with 2:39 to play.
In that critical moment, with the game begging for heroics, Tannehill completed a pass for 8 yards, then another for 7 and another for 18. Then the offensive line seemingly collapsed and no one made a play downfield.
Moving the ball from the Miami 17 to near midfield was good.
It simply wasn’t great.