Fins, fans are back with fast start to '13

MIAMI -- A postgame stroll through the concourse of Sun Life Stadium revealed emotion unseen from Miami Dolphins fans in years.

There were deafening chants of "Three and oh! Three and oh!" from some of the 70,000-plus who filled the stadium. One father had his arm wrapped around his young son and said, "That's a good football team you just saw."

Football -- finally -- is back in South Florida.

The Dolphins revived their franchise and reinvigorated their fan base with Sunday's 27-23, come-from-behind victory against the talented Atlanta Falcons. In winning its home opener, Miami improved to 3-0 for the first time since 2002.

This is also the first time in a long time that the Dolphins are dreaming big -- and rightfully so. Miami already has quality wins against the Falcons (1-2) and Indianapolis Colts (2-1), who were playoff teams from a season ago.

"It just goes to show that we can play with anybody," Dolphins center Mike Pouncey said in the locker room after the game. "We took two years to put this team together and brought in a lot of different guys to help this team win football games. The coaching staff is pointing us in the right direction, and now we're going out and producing on Sundays."

Dolphins owner Stephen Ross had a billionaire smile as he emerged from the locker room. Since taking over as majority owner in 2009, Ross has mostly seen sparse crowds and losing seasons. This season, however, feels different.

"We got a damn good football team is what it tells me," Ross said of the fast start. "That's what it's all about."

The win wasn't pretty for the Dolphins. But that was the beauty of Sunday's game.

For years, the Dolphins needed to play their A-game to beat quality opponents. But Miami beat Atlanta with toughness, will and fourth-quarter focus.

The Falcons had more yards than the Dolphins (377 to 285), more first downs (24 to 16) and led for a majority of the game. Miami also struggled with tackling and poor execution for three quarters, yet managed to stay within striking distance of Atlanta.

Miami had the ball and trailed by three points with 4:46 remaining. That's when Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill (236 yards, two touchdowns) heated up, going 9-for-12 during Miami's 75-yard touchdown drive that sealed the game. The final play was a 1-yard touchdown pass with 38 seconds remaining.

Tannehill, who is growing as a leader, said he had a clear message to his offense in the huddle on the final drive.

"I said it doesn't matter what happened before now," Tannehill explained. "All that matters is what you do right now."

Tannehill said that before the final score, he went to Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman during a Falcons timeout and suggested a play-action pass. Sherman agreed, trusting his second-year quarterback. The result was a touchdown pass to rookie tight end Dion Sims.

Tannehill's conversation with his coach showed both growth and confidence. The Dolphins are winning as a team, but Tannehill's improvement is the single biggest reason Miami is taking the next step. Tannehill improved to 10-9 as a starter and has a stellar 94.3 passer rating in the first three games of this season.

"He did a pretty good job spreading the ball, getting it to everyone," Dolphins receiver Mike Wallace said. "He is doing the things a quarterback needs to do to take that next step."

That brings us to Miami's highly anticipated showdown next week against the New Orleans Saints (3-0) on ESPN's "Monday Night Football." Both teams are undefeated, and the Dolphins have earned their way onto the national stage. Expect a lot of hype and buzz entering this game.

The Dolphins' Week 1 win against Cleveland was expected. Their Week 2 victory against the Colts was a pleasant surprise. But Sunday's come-from-behind win against Atlanta -- a team many feel is a Super Bowl contender -- was a major statement. Consider: According to ESPN Stats & Information, 75 percent of teams that started 3-0 since 1990 made the playoffs.

"It was definitely a good step forward, to say the least," Dolphins receiver Brian Hartline said. "Expectations will continue to rise. But high expectations bring out the best in you. So we'll welcome it."