MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — As the Miami Dolphins prepare for a rare prime-time appearance next Monday night at New Orleans, the extra day between games will be welcome.
It gives the Dolphins a few additional hours to enjoy being 3-0, more time for an injury-depleted defense to mend, and another practice to address serious problems with pass protection.
The surprising Dolphins took another step toward ending their streak of four consecutive losing seasons by rallying past Atlanta 27-23 Sunday.
"We're making the most of the present, and hopefully we can snowball that into the future," said long snapper John Denney, whose nine years with Miami give him locker room seniority.
The Dolphins have won their first three games 12 other times, and none of those teams finished with a losing record. Nine of them made the playoffs, and Miami's quick start has stirred speculation about a run to the postseason.
Such optimism is a big change in South Florida, because the Dolphins haven't been 3-0 since 2002, and they've reached the playoffs only once since 2001. That's why they haven't played in prime time much lately.
But a buzz about the Dolphins is building, and to sustain it they'll need to address issues on both sides of the ball. Injuries have left uncertain the status of four defensive starters, including Pro Bowl end Cameron Wake, and shaky blocking threatens the health of quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
Wake was sidelined Sunday after he hurt his left knee in the first quarter. Tests determined he avoided serious injury, but it's uncertain whether he'll be available against the Saints.
"We're going to wait and see how the week progresses," defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle said Monday. "We have a long week here ahead of us, and I think we'll make that determination at the end of the week."
Linebacker Koa Misi left Sunday's game with a shoulder injury, and defensive tackle Paul Soliai (knee) and cornerback Dimitri Patterson (groin) sat out. Even so, the defense was at its best down the stretch, a testament to Miami's improved depth.
"You never want anybody to go down, but you know it's bound to happen in this game," cornerback Brent Grimes said. "You have to have people step up."
Wake's injury means the Dolphins may be forced to accelerate the development of top draft pick Dion Jordan, who came off the bench in the first three games. The No. 3 overall pick from Oregon saw his most extensive action Sunday, including when Miami forced consecutive three-and-outs by high-powered Atlanta in the second half.
"We're seeing more and more of Dion, and he's getting better," Coyle said. "We want to expand his role. He showed things in the game Sunday which lead us to believe we can keep feeding him more."
Miami's struggling offensive line was also at its best late, protecting Tannehill on every throw as he went 9 for 12 to lead the game-winning 75-yard touchdown drive.
But Tannehill endured five sacks earlier, giving him 14 this season, three more than any other NFL quarterback. He's on pace for 75 sacks, one shy of the league record, but probably wouldn't last the full season if that pace continues.
The sacks have been a team effort that goes beyond the line, offensive coordinator Mike Sherman said, including play-calling mistakes for which he took the blame. Tannehill has held onto the ball too long at times, and the running back or tight end has missed a block on occasion, Sherman said.
"We're giving up a lot of sacks, more than we ought to give up," he said. "But it's not all on the offensive line."
The Dolphins' statistics make their record a head-scratcher. They've been outgained by 158 yards, and their rushing attack (3.3 yards per attempt) and run defense (4.7) are both significantly worse than last year, when they went 7-9.
But they've showed a flair for big plays, something missing in recent seasons. They lead the NFL in red-zone scoring, and they've already come up with five interceptions, half of last season's total.
Perhaps the biggest play Sunday was Denney's fumble recovery on a punt return, which set up a pivotal touchdown for Miami. The recovery was just the second ever for Denney, but he didn't bask in the accomplishment.
"I'm more excited about being 3-0," he said. "That hasn't happened a whole lot in my career."
Actually, it has never happened in Denney's career. But then he has only been with the Dolphins since 2005.