The Miami Dolphins’ early-season hype seemed to be realized last week in the franchise’s most dominant win in nearly 20 years.
The rising expectations around the Detroit Lions should only continue to grow with Calvin Johnson’s expected return.
After pitching their first shutout in nearly eight years, the Dolphins figure to have a stiff test Sunday at Ford Field against Johnson and the Lions in a matchup of teams aiming for a fourth straight victory.
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The Dolphins (5-3) looked like a legitimate contender last week when they steamrolled San Diego 37-0 – the franchise’s best point differential since a 52-14 win on Sept. 3, 1995, and first shutout since December 2006.
Ryan Tannehill posted a career-best 125.6 passer rating as Miami racked up a season-high 441 yards, and the Dolphins held San Diego’s then-seventh-ranked offense to 178 yards – the fifth-lowest mark in the NFL this season.
The third-year quarterback dismissed the idea that the win was the best performance of his career.
"I don’t know about that," Tannehill said. "Offensively, we executed well. Guys were making plays. But we still left some plays out there."
Although Tannehill sees room for improvement, the rest of the league sees a team playing at the level necessary for sustained success. Tannehill has completed 68 percent of his passes over his past five games while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt with a 104.1 rating.
Miami has averaged the league’s fifth-most points (30.6) since Week 4. Tannehill has run for at least 35 yards in each of Miami’s five games in that stretch, but the rushing attack could be missing Lamar Miller.
Miller, on pace for his first 1,000-yard season, is listed as questionable because of a left shoulder injury.
"You saw where they had the wide splits on the outside, a quarterback that can run, he’s throwing the ball well, backs that can move it and receivers that can run and catch," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "Just across the board, they give you all types of problems and difficulties.
"That’s one of those teams that you can tell just keeps getting better and better each week."
Miami’s defense has been equally impressive, leading the NFL in yards per play (4.68), yards per pass (5.16) and first downs (143). The Dolphins also rank second in pass defense, third in total defense and fourth against the run.
Detroit (6-2) will counter with a phenomenal defense of its own – albeit one that will possibly be without Nick Fairley for a month due to MCL and PCL sprains. The Lions rank at the top of the NFL in total yards (290.4) and points allowed (15.8) per game.
"We’re the top defense," safety James Ihedigbo said. "People say it … it’s not something we said ourselves. That’s the standard that we’ve set across the NFL. That’s the standard we’ve set in this building."
The Lions enjoyed their bye in Week 9 after defeating Atlanta 22-21 in London the previous week, holding the Falcons to 80 yards and no points after halftime. Atlanta had 291 for the game, the NFL best-tying fourth time this season Detroit held its opponent to under 300 yards.
Matthew Stafford, who threw for 325 yards and two touchdowns in the victory, has developed an dynamic connection with Golden Tate, who has emerged with Johnson out. Tate ranks fifth in the NFL with 55 receptions, fourth with 800 yards and is coming off back-to-back 150-yard performances.
Tate may have trouble approaching those numbers this week, but for a reason that certainly won’t upset the Lions. Johnson is expected to play after sitting out the past three games with an ankle injury.
"(It’s) good for the body," Johnson said about his month off. "Definitely fresh when I came back … It’s going to be good for me this season."
Also expected back is ex-Dolphin Reggie Bush, who missed two of the past three games with a sprained ankle.
Johnson and Bush will match up with a familiar face Sunday – ex-teammate Louis Delmas. After being cut by the Lions in February, Delmas has started seven of eight games for Miami and was named AFC defensive player of the week after recording two tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception in Week 7 against Chicago.
"Throughout practice, but I pretty much lost every one," Delmas said about his matchups with Johnson in Detroit. "He’s a heck of a player. He’s one of the more talented players I’ve ever faced. We’re talented too. We’ve just got to go out there and play our game, and hopefully the best man wins."
The Lions sent home C.J. Mosley from London and initially suspended him for an additional game after he was reportedly caught with marijuana, but reinstated the defensive tackle this week with Fairley on the shelf. Mosley has 2 1/2 sacks in seven games.
The Dolphins held Johnson to four catches for 52 yards when they last met Detroit in 2010, but lost 34-27 at home.