Last week against Cleveland? It was a good start. It had value. It was an accomplishment because any week that’s punctuated by a victory is a successful week in the NFL.
But if anyone thinks that season opener serves as a statement about the 2013 Dolphins or guarantees great days ahead, you should understand there is one more thing that Browns game represents.
The Browns this season aren’t a contender for anything other than best rebuilding franchise. They have struggled for years. They have a rookie coach. They don’t have a consistent quarterback, and they got served their 13th season-opening loss in the past 14 years.
Beating the Browns is not a barometer for quality.
But Sunday against Indianapolis is another matter.
This game against a good team, a winning team, a playoff-caliber team, might forecast what these Dolphins really are and are headed toward. This game will speak in many ways to those perceiving a franchise’s course change but still lacking the tangible evidence to make a good case.
“Indianapolis is coming off a playoff year so they have to be considered a playoff-caliber team,” cornerback Dimitri Patterson said during the week of Dolphins preparation. “So yeah, it’s a good measuring stick, no doubt about it.”
The Dolphins believe themselves playoff contenders this year. Their goal is to win the AFC East crown outright, and after watching the New England Patriots and New York Jets play an uninspiring, unimpressive four quarters last week, the goal seems attainable.
But only if the Dolphins can beat the Colts.
Meaning of a win
If the Dolphins can do that, they suddenly seem a believable playoff contender because they will have beaten a playoff contender.
If the Dolphins can do that, they can argue they have a chance against the coming entourage of franchise quarterbacks they will face the rest of this season because Indy’s Andrew Luck is the first in that excellent line.
If the Dolphins can beat the Colts, it will suggest they’re turning the tide on what has been a consistently troubling inability to beat good teams the past five seasons.
Consider that the past five years, including the 2008 playoff season, the Dolphins have a very good 29-16 record (.640 winning percentage) against teams with records of .500 or worse.
That means the Dolphins have feasted on poor-to-mediocre teams the past five seasons. They’ve had little trouble, in other words, against teams like the same Cleveland Browns they just beat.
But against better-than-average teams, the Dolphins have been horrible. They’ve been outclassed against teams with records better than .500 the past five years to the tune of a 9-26 record (.250 winning percentage).
The past two years have been particularly bad, with Miami going 2-9 (.181 winning percentage) against such teams. Even in 2008, when the Dolphins gave their fan base hope of a turnaround with an 11-5 record and an AFC East championship, the team managed to win only two of six regular-season games against teams with records better than .500.
In other words, the Dolphins have been losing a lot of games against teams like Sunday’s opponent for at least five years.
That’s what makes this game against the Colts so interesting.
A victory would give hope the Dolphins have changed course. It would suggest Miami can indeed win upcoming games against Atlanta and Baltimore — also 2012 playoff teams like the Colts — because the gulf between Miami and playoff-caliber competition has shrunk.
There’s another important issue the Dolphins can go far toward settling if they beat Indianapolis: They can say they’ve improved from a year ago and finally have proof to back up the claim.
The Colts beat the Dolphins last year, and that game sent clear signals that one team was headed in the right direction with a playmaking quarterback and the other team was mostly treading water with a quarterback who needed more weapons.
In that game, Luck broke the single-game passing record for a rookie with 433 passing yards. He made play after play on third down against the Dolphins defense, converting 13 of 19 chances.
The Dolphins defense simply couldn’t stop him.
“That’s the difference between winning and losing,” safety Reshad Jones said, reliving the nightmare. “Getting off the field on third down, giving our offense another chance to put the ball in the end zone is big.
“It was pretty frustrating. We were gassed. It was mind-boggling because we were playing well on first and second down and couldn’t win on third down.”
The Dolphins entered that game with three consecutive wins and building playoff hopes. Then the Colts set them off on a three-game losing skid.
But now the Dolphins think themselves above such trouble. Jones says the secondary that was torched last year — rebuilt at cornerback — is much better. The offense also seems more capable of keeping up with Luck and his group of outstanding wide receivers.
Together, that offers hope this result can be different.
And that would give hope these Dolphins aren’t the same kind of team they’ve been the past five years.