MIAMI -- The "2012 AFC East Champion" T-shirts were handed out by the dozens Sunday evening. There was a celebratory feel inside Sun Life Stadium, but it wasn't for the home team.
The visiting New England Patriots clinched the AFC East title with a 23-16 victory over the Miami Dolphins. New England improved to 9-3 and has bigger things in mind -- such as the playoffs and a Super Bowl run.
Miami (5-7), on the other hand, was sullen in the home locker room after having its playoff hopes dashed. It's time for the Dolphins to start thinking about 2013 and beyond.
"Very frustrating," Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said in a quiet locker room. "I think all you guys know that you can’t make any mistakes against this football team. We missed on a lot of opportunities to make plays."
But if the Dolphins showed anything, it’s that they are not that far away from contending. This isn’t the bottom-feeder team most expected from Miami this year. The Dolphins have some pieces in place.
Sunday’s loss against New England -- the longtime kings of the AFC East -- provided the perfect blueprint of what the Dolphins need. For starters, Miami lacked the offensive firepower to keep pace with New England.
Miami’s defense played one of its best games of the season. The Patriots entered this game hot as the league’s No. 1 offense. New England scored 40 points or more four times this season but was held in check by the Dolphins. Miami stuffed New England’s running game and rattled quarterback Tom Brady with four sacks. The Patriots’ 23 points were their lowest since Week 6.
But Miami’s offense mostly settled for field goals and punts. Dolphins rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill was not at his best, completing just 13 of 29 passes for 186 yards. That certainly wasn’t good enough to beat Brady, even on an off day.
The Dolphins lacked the dynamic skill players to make big plays. Two perfect examples were Tannehill’s missed connections deep with receiver Brian Hartline that could have resulted in touchdowns.
“You’ve got to hit those,” Tannehill admitted after the game. “You don’t get too many shots like that.”
Miami’s defense was stout. But the Patriots were able to exploit its biggest weakness: cornerback.
The Dolphins traded former starter Vontae Davis this summer, and current starter Richard Marshall is on injured reserve with a back injury. Miami is down to Sean Smith and its fourth or fifth corners, and that’s where Wes Welker dominated.
Welker, a former Dolphin, had a successful return to Miami and caught 12 passes for 103 yards and a touchdown. Welker was the only player Miami couldn’t contain and the biggest reason the Patriots were able to move down the field in this game.
“He’s very crafty,” said Dolphins safety Reshad Jones, who had an interception in the game. “He has one of the best quarterbacks in the game to get him the ball. [Welker] does a great job on options routes, and he does a great job of getting loose."
In addition to offensive skill players and cornerbacks, the Dolphins also need to figure out their left tackle situation. Jake Long's future with the team became more murky after he suffered a triceps injury in the first quarter. Dolphins coach Joe Philbin did not provide specifics about the injury after the game, but the fact that Long was in street clothes in the second half is a sign he could miss extended time.
Long was easily the team’s best player two years ago. But he has fallen on hard times due to recent injuries and inconsistency. Long is not the elite left tackle he once was and is an injury risk. But he will command a hefty paycheck when he becomes a free agent in March. Miami’s offense certainly didn't look great without him against New England.
“Jake’s a great player, and it’s tough losing a guy like that,” Dolphins tailback Reggie Bush said. “His presence was definitely missed. But football must go on, and the next guy must step in and do the job.”
Miami rookie second-round pick Jonathan Martin was moved from right to left tackle. He is the best option on the roster and could be auditioning for the left tackle job if Long is out for an extended period.
Martin played left tackle at Stanford, where he was the personal protector for Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck. Martin didn’t embarrass himself in his first action at left tackle in the NFL and showed some good things.
“I think I did all right,” Martin said after the game. “I’m a little rusty [at left tackle]. It’s like a mirror image [from right tackle]. You just have to remember how your muscles feel and how your balance feels.”
The Patriots exposed Miami in these areas Sunday to win their 10th AFC East title in 12 years. But the good news is the Dolphins have plenty of cap space in 2013 and five draft picks in the first three rounds to patch these holes.
All that Miami's front office has to do is use this film against New England as its guide for the offseason.