Dolphins try to prove they are for real against banged-up Falcons

OK, Miami Dolphins, it's time to show you belong with the big boys.

Second-year coach Joe Philbin's squad opened the 2013 season on the road with an anticipated win (by many) at Cleveland and a surprising triumph (to some) at Indianapolis.

Now, when the Dolphins return home this week to face recently perennial NFC powerhouse Atlanta, they'll do so as a team suddenly viewed as a playoff contender and a potential divisional challenger.

Miami last opened with three straight wins under Dave Wannstedt in 2002, before finishing 9-7 and missing the postseason; and was last 2-0 in 2010, en route to a 7-9 finish in what turned out to be Tony Sparano's last full season with the No. 1 headset.

Early prosperity has been harder to come by in the last two season, which the Dolphins began at 0-7 and 1-3 on the way to final marks of 6-10 and 7-9.

"It's only two games," said cornerback Brent Grimes, who played 59 games with the Falcons in six seasons before arriving in South Florida as a free agent on March 30. "But we played well and got two road wins to start the season, which is a big deal, and we showed a lot of promise of things we can do if we keep our heads on straight."

To further test the Miami mettle, following the playoff-focused Falcons on the schedule will be the resurgent New Orleans Saints and the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.

"Any time you start 2-0 it's a confidence builder, and we're going to feel like we can beat anybody," linebacker Philip Wheeler said.

In defeating a Colts team that hadn't lost at home since last September, second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill appeared to have made the step from inconsistent rookie to comfortable contributor. He also played nicely with new pass-catching weapon Mike Wallace, who'd expressed some discontent after his initial game with the Dolphins, in which he caught just one pass.

Wallace had nine catches for 115 yards as part of Tannehill's 23-for-34 day that yielded 319 yards and a TD strike to the former Steelers speedster. Additionally, the ground game that had been bottled up by the Browns was more a factor against Indianapolis, churning out 101 yards and a score.

The success, Philbin said, came from adhering to patient preaching.

"You have to stay true to the film," he said. "The film tells us from Sunday's game we did a lot of good things. But the film also says there are major areas of improvement that need to be addressed quickly. I think our guys are level-headed and know film is the biggest barometer of success."

The Falcons arrive as dinged-up adversaries following a seven-point defeat of St. Louis last week that followed a Week 1 loss to NFC South rival New Orleans.

In particular, Atlanta will be without Steven Jackson after the running back sustained a thigh injury that could be a more prolonged issue than just one game.

"He will not play this week. I know that," coach Mike Smith said. "It is short term. When I say short term, I don't know if it's two weeks or three weeks."

Also limping out of the Rams game and straight to season-ending injured reserve were defensive end Kroy Biermann and fullback Bradie Ewing, who have Achilles and shoulder problems, respectively.

Another thigh injury could keep cornerback Asante Samuel off the field, while the Falcons already know they'll be without linebacker Sean Weatherspoon for eight weeks, thanks to a foot issue.

Filling in behind Matt Ryan in the backfield will be Jacquizz Rodgers and Jason Snelling.

"We've not had anything close to this (many injuries at once)," Smith said. "There have been games where we've had guys who have not been able to play and it's been the next-man up mentality, and I think that's really what our guys understand."

Still, even with the training room full, the offense is hardly without healthy talent.

Wide receiver Julio Jones is near the top of the NFL leaderboard with 18 catches and 258 yards after hauling in 11 passes for 182 yards and a TD against St. Louis. Ryan completed 33-of-43 passes for 374 yards and two scores and has completed 71.6 percent of his attempts through two weeks.

Meanwhile, tight end Tony Gonzalez has seven catches for 69 yards and a TD in two games. The Dolphins have proven vulnerable to pass-catching tight ends through two games, allowing a combined 177 yards on 13 catches against the Browns and Colts.

"Julio and Matt seemed to be in sync, seeing the defense the same way," Smith said. "When you have your receiver and quarterback doing that, you have a chance to be successful."


With Steven Jackson out of commission, the Dolphins will be more inclined to pin their ears back in an effort to harass Ryan, meaning substitute running back Rodgers will play a role in keeping the heat off. The fifth-round pick from 2011 has been a capable receiving threat in 34 NFL games -- catching 79 passes for a pair of touchdowns. He'll have a chance to add to those numbers Sunday.

The continued maturation of Tannehill will go the longest way toward determining Miami's success, both this week and beyond. While he doesn't have the All-Pro array of skill players that counterpart Ryan boasts, the second-year man has established a relationship with Wallace and can also look to holdover Brian Hartline as his Wes Welker-type safety valve.


The Dolphins cleared a big respectability hurdle in traveling to Indy to down the favored Colts last week, so momentum is on their side in a home opener with a beaten-up visitor.

Though it's often been the sort of game that's revealed pretenders in contenders' clothing, it says here that Philbin will keep his unproven squad on an even keel that'll allow them to get this week's job done, too.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 23, Falcons 20.