By Simon Evans
MIAMI (Reuters) - "End the half, end the game" has been Miami coach Joe Philbin's mantra and on Sunday his team did just that, beating the Atlanta Falcons 27-23 in a statement comeback that took them to 3-0 for the first time in 11 years.
Road wins against Cleveland and Indianapolis had raised the question as to whether the Dolphins were emerging as legitimate contenders for a playoff place and in beating an Atlanta team that had made the postseason the past three years, Miami gave a firm affirmative answer.
"We've got a damn good football team," said Dolphins owner Stephen Ross as he left a dressing room where the floor was covered with the ice of a celebratory 'Gatorade shower'.
Years of disappointment with just one playoff game since the 2001 season have left Dolphins fans wary of false dawns, skeptical of talk of corners being turned.
But Ross, whose early decisions since taking control of the franchise in January 2009 led many to question his and his management team's credentials, can be forgiven for a bit of euphoric optimism after a win against one of the NFC's top-rated teams.
Since 1990, 75 percent of the teams that start the season 3-0 have gone on to make the playoffs.
Crucially, 14 years after Dan Marino retired, the Dolphins finally have, in second year Ryan Tannehill, a quarterback with the necessary quality and composure.
"He's a monster. He's taken the next step and everyone can see he's been playing well for us all season," said Dolphins center Mike Pouncey.
Tannehill showed his passing ability and cool head to produce a game-winning drive of 13 plays and 75 yards, ending with a delightful one-yard floated pass to rookie tight end Dion Sims with 38 seconds left.
For the second week in a row, Miami had ended the half by getting three points on the board - this time a 46-yard field goal from Caleb Sturgis keeping them in touch with the Falcons as they went to the break down 13-10.
The well-run two-minute drill is becoming the trademark of this team and Philbin's insistence on its import has clearly got into the minds of his players, as evidenced by the game-winning drive.
"We knew what we needed to do and we have done it multiple times in practice," said Tannehill.
"We repped that situation constantly and one thing that coach Philbin always stresses is 'end the half, end the game'.
"We knew what we were getting. We knew what we needed to do and it was just a case of stepping up and making plays," he added.
In between those two crucial drives there were plenty of signs that Philbin still has some work to do if his team is to move from a positive start to long-term success.
There were some damaging dropped passes and Tannehill was sacked five times, taking his tally to the season to 14 in three games and there are not surprisingly concerns about the pass protection from the Miami offensive line.
But what will please Dolphins fans the most is the character the team showed in dealing with setbacks after key defensive end Cameron Wake sat out the second half with a knee injury and influential outside linebacker Koa Misi hurt his shoulder in the second half.
One man though who is not going to get carried away by the hot start is the mild-mannered Philbin who continued his measured appraisal of his team.
"We have got a bunch of hard working guys who are high character individuals," he said. "They've been very professional and hopefully we can continue to improve."
So far, in a city known for flash and glitz, that under-stated Philbin-way is getting results.
(Editing by Gene Cherry)