Three of a Kind?

Coach Joe Philbin

Faced with one of their most difficult opening stretches at the start of a season, the Dolphins have answered the challenge so far. And now the Dolphins are one victory against Atlanta away from achieving something they haven't done in 11 years — a 3-0 start.

Yes, it was 2002 the last time the Dolphins opened a season with three consecutive victories. That year, the Dolphins started with a 49-21 rout of the Detroit Lions at home in the season opener and followed that up with victories against Indianapolis (21-13) and against the New York Jets (30-3).

The strong start didn't produce a playoff appearance that year, although the Dolphins did finish in a three-way tie for first in the AFC East with a 9-7 record. The New York JEts ended up winning the division title that year, with both New England and the Dolphins missing out of the playoffs.

What should be pointed out about that season is that the Dolphins likely would have made the playoffs had it not been for the injury sustained by starting quarterback Jay Fiedler.

Remember that the Dolphins were cruising along at 5-1 after a stunning victory at Denver in a Sunday night game, but that victory cost Miami the services of Fiedler for the next three games.

With Fiedler out of the lineup, the Dolphins managed only 10 points in each of the next three games and lost all three to fall back to 5-4.

It was a similar story in 1996 when the Dolphins started 3-0 in Jimmy Johnson's first year as head coach, but then lost Dan Marino in a game at Indianapolis. The Dolphins lost that game against the Colts, went 1-2 the next three games with Marino on the sidelines, and ended up 8-8.

There was no such injury in 1977 when the Dolphins also started 3-0 and failed to make the playoffs, but Miami did finish with a 10-4 record that was the fourth-best in the AFC that year.

The only problem was that Baltimore won a tiebreaker against the Dolphins to capture the AFC East title and the Oakland Raiders captured the one wild-card spot available that year by virtue of an 11-3 mark.

For the most part, though, a 3-0 start equals a playoff appearance for the Dolphins.

The tally is 12 3-0 starts in franchise history, and nine playoff appearances in those 12 seasons.

The Dolphins had 3-0 starts four times in a five-season stretch that spanned Don Shula's final two seasons and Jimmy Johnson's first three — the Dolphins won their first three games in 1994, 1995, 1996 and 1998.

The Dolphins also had 3-0 starts four times in a six-season stretch from 1977 to 1982 (1977, 1979, 1981, 1982).

The other four 3-0 starts came in 1972 (of course, considering Miami finished 14-0), 1984, 1992 and 2002.

Here's the rundown of the Dolphins' 3-0 finishes and how they ended those seasons:

1972, final record 14-0, won Super Bowl

1977, 10-4, tied for first in AFC East, no playoffs

1979, 10-6, made playoffs

1981, 11-4-1, made playoffs

1982, 7-2, reached Super Bowl

1983, 12-4, made playoffs

1984, 14-2, reached Super Bowl

1992, made playoffs, reached AFC Championship Game

1994, 11-5, made playoffs

1995, 9-7, made playoffs

1996, 8-8, no playoffs

1998, 10-6, made playoffs

2002, 9-7, tied for first in AFC East, no playoffs

Philbin said before the season started that his only focus was on Cleveland that week because it was the game at hand, and you can bet his approach hasn't changed just because the team is off to a 0-2 start.

So he'll just let everybody else worry about envisioning a 3-0 start and what it could mean.

Based on history, usually it means good for the Dolphins and for teams around the league as well.

Only eight teams in the past three seasons have started 3-0, but seven of those teams have gone on to make the playoffs. The one exception is the 2012 Arizona Cardinals, who actually were 4-0 after their overtime victory against the Dolphins last September but then collapsed and ended up 5-11.

Over the past 10 seasons, 39 of the 48 teams (81.3 percent) that have started 3-0 have made the postseason.

Here's the breakdown of the teams that have started 3-0 over the past 10 seasons. Those that have failed to make the playoffs that season are in parentheses.

2012 — (Arizona), Atlanta, Houston

2011 — Baltimore, Detroit, Green Bay

2010 — Chicago, Kansas City, Pittsburgh

2009 — Baltimore, (Denver), Indianapolis, Minnesota, (N.Y. Giants), N.Y. Jets, New Orleans

2008 — (Buffalo), (Dallas), (Denver), N.Y. Giants, Tennessee

2007 — Dallas, Green Bay, Indianapolis, New England, Pittsburgh

2006 — Baltimore, Chicago, (Cincinnati), Indianapolis, New Orleans, Seattle

2005 — Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Tampa Bay, Washington

2004 — Atlanta, (Jacksonville), New England, N.Y. Jets, Philadelphia, Seattle

2003 — Carolina, Denver, Indianapolis, Kansas City, (Minnesota), Seattle

So it's easy to see that a 3-0 start is a pretty strong indicator of a team headed to the playoffs.

Of course, we should point out, in the interest of thoroughness, that things didn't play out that way in what clearly was a wacky 2002 season.

Remember how the Dolphins failed to make the playoffs that year despite starting 3-0? Well, they were far from the only team to suffer that fate.

As it played out, seven teams were 3-0 after three games in 2002, yet only one of those ended up making the playoffs — the Oakland Raiders. Along with the Dolphins, Carolina, Denver, New England, New Orleans and San Diego all missed out on the postseason despite winning their first three games.

The Dolphins certainly hope for a repeat of the 2002 start, except with a different ending.

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