For the Patriots, it could spell trouble.
Sure, every team in the NFL is capable of flashing brilliance from time to time, but there's one reason to believe this Dolphins team will remain competitive for the balance of the season: Ronnie Brown.
The running back/quarterback/wide receiver/all-around game-changer showed under the bright lights of national television that he is the most dynamic player in the league. Adrian Peterson may be the best runner in the league, but there's nobody that can match Brown's versatility.
Taking snaps in the Wildcat formation, Brown slid through crowds to set up short-yardage situations all night and scored a pair of touchdowns. He was a threat to throw the ball, completing a 23-yard pass on the third play of the game. And he showed the skills of a wide receiver, cutting in front of a defender to grab an underthrown pass from Chad Henne along the sideline.
Simply put, he was a one-man wrecking crew (something with which the Patriots are all too familiar). He also might be the one man who turns the AFC East into a three-horse race.
Two weeks ago, that statement would have drawn ridicule and laughter. Now, if you're a fan of the Patriots, it has to inspire a bit of concern.
After Henne took over for the injured Chad Pennington in a dreadful defeat in San Diego, the Dolphins were 0-3 and looked to be headed more toward becoming the 1-15 Dolphins of 2007 than last year's 11-5 squad.
They then routed the Bills and solved the Jets' defense, immediately becoming a factor in the AFC East.
For the Patriots, who were picked as the hands-down favorite to win the division, that fact could throw a monkey wrench into the plans for this season. They've already lost a pair of games in the conference, so losing to the Dolphins is not an option.
"What happened last year — when people ask us how we went 11-5 and didn't make the playoffs — that's one of the reasons why," running back Kevin Faulk told NESN on Tuesday. "We lost to too many AFC opponents who were ranked higher than us."
At 3-2, the Patriots are currently in second place behind the Jets (3-2) due to the Pats' 16-9 loss to New York in Week 2. With the Dolphins breathing down both teams' necks at 2-3, the Patriots' Week 9 matchup at Gillette with Miami no longer seems like the gimme it once did.
In that game, though, the advantage goes to the Pats, who are coming off their bye week. Under Bill Belichick, the Patriots are 7-2 in the week after their bye, outscoring opponents 245-116 in those games. Still, with Brown running the show for the Fins, anything can happen.
The Patriots then face a gauntlet – playing at Indianapolis, at home against the Jets and in New Orleans. The combined record of those teams? 12-2.
If the Pats survive, they'll be back on the road for a Sunday night game in Miami, where the celebrities are turning out for a team that's once again showing signs of life.
As always, though, it's a long season, and any number of things can happen. Henne looked All-World on Monday, something the 24-year-old likely won't be able to do on a weekly basis. Opposing defenses could shut down the Wildcat and send the offense scrambling. An injury to Ricky Williams or Ted Ginn Jr. would eliminate major threats from the tricky offense.
The development of this Dolphins team is especially troubling for the Jets and Patriots, who have both shown their fair share of weaknesses through the first five weeks of the season. Mark Sanchez has been up and down, as has Tom Brady. The Jets' defense, once advertised as the best in the business, had no answers for Miami. The Jets were essentially only in that game late because of a more-than-questionable pass interference call, giving the Jets 49 free yards in their final scoring drive.
The Patriots, for their part, have dropped a pair of winnable games — a trend that will undoubtedly sink all title hopes if it continues. They have a pair of layups against the 0-5 Titans and 0-5 Bucs, but a slipup to either of those teams could prove to be extremely costly.
But as the league turns the first corner of the season, it's evident that the Dolphins have changed the landscape of the division. Whether they can keep up — and whether the Jets and Patriots can maintain the pace — for the remainder of the race will only add to the season's excitement.
And if it's in any way comparable to the events of Monday night, it could come down to a photo finish.
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