Top storyline: Unbeatens collide in the Superdome
OK, let’s be honest here.
Raise your hand if you thought, when the NFL schedule was released in mid-April, that the New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins would be 3-0 heading into their “Monday Night Football” matchup to cap Week 4.
Since both teams were coming off 7-9 seasons and were scheduled to play the Atlanta Falcons in the first three weeks, it didn’t seem likely.
It seemed downright implausible at the time. Heck, even one of them being 3-0 was a bit far-fetched.
But here we are on the final day of the first month of the season — and both teams are still undefeated.
The Saints are off to a 3-0 start for only the seventh time in the 47-year history of the franchise. It’s the first time it has happened since 2009, when they went on to win Super Bowl XLIV.
The Dolphins, on the other hand, have won their first three games for the first time since 2002 — a season when they finished 9-7.
Of course, the signature win for both teams in the early going this season was against the Falcons.
After winning 13 games a year ago and coming within 10 yards of reaching the Super Bowl, the Falcons were surprised by the Saints in the season opener 23-17 and last Sunday were brought down by the Dolphins 27-23.
So each team has some momentum on its side going into a game that no one could have imagined would pit a pair of undefeated squads.
One of them won’t be perfect after Monday night, so enjoy it while you can.
About the Dolphins
The Dolphins appear to be on the right track under former Green Bay Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin even though the 7-9 record in his first season wasn’t quite as satisfying as he would have liked.
It easily could have been a lot better. The Dolphins lost three games by field goals in the first half of the season and later suffered five- and seven-point setbacks.
The trio of three-point losses alone suggests the Dolphins were just a few plays away from being 10-6, which likely would have gotten them to the postseason for the first time since they went 11-5 in 2008.
With second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill settling in and sporting a new weapon in wide receiver Mike Wallace, the Dolphins are showing — at least with a 3-0 mark early in the season — that they can contend in the AFC East.
While they know there’s a long way to go, at least they feel like they’re headed in the right direction after four consecutive losing seasons.
Key matchup: Saints front seven vs. Dolphins OL
After finishing the 2012 season with just 30 sacks to rank near the bottom of the NFL, the Saints already have gotten to the opposing quarterback eight times through three games.
That’s not good news for the Dolphins, who have given up 14 sacks — tied for most in the league going into Week 4.
Consequently, protecting Ryan Tannehill will be a big concern for the Dolphins going into the matchup with the fourth-ranked Saints defense.
One of the key battles will be Saints right defensive end Cameron Jordan against Dolphins left tackle Jonathan Martin.
Jordan, who has a team-leading three sacks, will be a big challenge for Martin, a second-round pick a year ago.
X factor: Saints TE Jimmy Graham
Graham has been on a tear for the Saints: He had his way with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Arizona Cardinals the past two weeks.
The imposing 6-foot-7, 265-pounder caught 19 passes for 313 yards and three TDs in those mismatches with the Bucs and Cardinals.
For the season, Graham has 23 receptions for 358 yards to lead all tight ends in those categories.
Graham also has a touchdown catch in all three games the Saints have played this season. Counting the final three games of the 2012 season, he has scored in six consecutive games to set a club record.
He figures to be as big a pain to the Dolphins, who rank 21st against the pass by allowing 263.3 yards per game. So he will be a priority for the Miami defense.
The Dolphins can take heart knowing they held the Falcons’ Tony Gonzalez, another former basketball star turned tight end, to 24 yards on four catches last week.
Three and out
1. ‘MNF’ KINGS: The Saints have won eight consecutive games on “Monday Night Football” dating to a 2008 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. They’re also a robust 10-2 under Sean Payton on that night and 17-8 in primetime contests since he was hired in 2006.
2. FOUR IN A ROW?: After winning their first three games, the Saints have a chance to go 4-0 for only the fourth time in franchise history. The only other times that has happened were in 1991 (they eventually started 7-0), 1993 (5-0) and 2009 (13-0).
3. SITTING PRETTY: The Saints and Dolphins are 3-0, which doesn’t mean much at this point. But according to NFL figures, it’s a good indicator that both will be playing in January. Since 1990, 75.4 percent of teams (86 of 114) that started 3-0 made the playoffs.