The Miami Dolphins have lost two straight games to fall to 3-2, but are just one game behind the 4-1 New England Patriots in the battle for the top spot in the AFC East.
With nearly one-third of the 2013 NFL season in the books, the Dolphins remain in contention for the AFC East crown, and if the Dolphins want to hold onto this feeling, their margin for error is slim to none.
For starters, the Patriots already have a leg up with a 2-0 record in the division; the Dolphins have yet to play a single division opponent this season; however, New England's next 11 opponents are a combined 29-23, while Miami's are a combined 22-28.
The two teams first face off on Oct. 27 in Foxborough, Mass. and again on December 15 in Miami, Fla.
The Dolphins are on a bye in Week 6, after a stretch of grueling opponents in the Colts, Falcons, Saints and Ravens. The week off gives the Dolphins extra time to scout a pair of division opponents in Weeks 7 (vs. Buffalo Bills) and 8 (at Patriots), and to do some self-scouting and sniff out the areas they need to improve.
"[There are] some good, some things really need correcting and working on," said Miami head coach Joe Philbin. "I told the team we have an excellent group of men in the locker room and we're going to fix the problems that we have. We're not going to sweep them under the rug. We're going to identify them, and find a way to improve."
There are multiple problems, but they won't have to look too far to find their biggest weakness: the offensive line. On the season, Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill has been sacked 24 times, which puts them on pace for 77 sacks, which would be a team record and the fourth-most in NFL history.
The protection has been there at times -- Tannehill was only pressured on 33.5 percent of his dropbacks for the first four games of the season -- but it's hard to get anything going through the air if the quarterback has no time to throw.
"I've said it before, I'll say it again -- the starting point in the passing game is protection," said Philbin. "You've got to have protection to function."
The pass blocking on the edge was a topic of concern for Miami headed into the game, and things went about as bad as expected against Ravens outside linebackers Terrell Suggs (three sacks) and Elvis Dumervil (one sack).
"We've got to keep fighting," said offensive tackle Jonathan Martin. "It's a long season. We've got a lot of ball games to be played and we've got time to turn it around. But it is a concerning trend so far and something that we need to get corrected now."
The Dolphins' blocking woes apply to the running game, as well, with a paltry average of 3.7 yards per carry on the season. On Sunday, they rushed 11 times for 22 yards.
In that way, the eventual matchup of the Patriots defensive line and the Dolphins offensive line isn't exactly unstoppable force vs. immovable object, and it will be interesting to see how far the Dolphins have come, and whether the Patriots have suitably replaced nose tackle Vince Wilfork, by the time these two teams meet for the first time.
The Dolphins pass-catchers should also spend some time on the JUGS machine over the bye week. They have dropped 14 passes on the season.
Tight end Charles Clay dropped a pass on the final drive of the game. Wide receiver Mike Wallace finally got a bit more involved in the passing game, with seven catches for 105 yards against the Ravens, but dropped two key passes, upping his 2013 total to five drops.
"We have to make plays regardless," Wallace said. "Whatever the situation is we need to make plays on our side, so no matter what is going on we still have to make plays."
Passes like this, hitting the receiver in the hands, have to be caught. Especially when that receiver is paid $12 million a year to receive.
The Dolphins could have predicted some of these painful drops, though. Wallace had five drops in 2011 and six in 2012, among the higher drop rates in the NFL in that span. That being said, there may be no cure for his case of dropitis.
Clearly, however, it's not just about Wallace. Not when he's making sweet catches like this.
Make no mistake; many of the Dolphins' problems are also being experienced by the Patriots. Dropped balls. A passing game that, too often, is forced to dink-and-dunk its way down the field.
Both the Patriots and Dolphins defenses have performed very well to this point in the season. It would have been hard to picture the Patriots as a defensive team just 12 months ago, but it would be hard to envision the Dolphins as anything but a defensive team based solely on their performance over the years (sixth in scoring defense in 2011, seventh in 2012).
That unit, which has let up just 7.1 passing yards per attempt and an 82.5 defensive passer rating on the season, figures to make life pretty difficult for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and company.
These two teams can quibble over the AFC East title, and the Patriots are still a step or two ahead in that battle, but both need to find rhythm on offense if they are going to compete consistently with the best teams in the league.
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