ESPN's AFC East reporters tackle both questions.
Is this Patriots start reflective of serious problems or just another speed bump they’ll remember at the end of another successful season?
Do not bury the Patriots. Haven’t we learned our lesson? While it’s clear they have some issues -- the lack of speed on defense is a bit alarming -- they still have Tom Brady, and he will always make them the team to beat in the division. In a week, Julian Edelman returns to the offense, which will take some pressure off Rob Gronkowski. If Josh Gordon can play anywhere near his potential, the Patriots will have three big-time weapons in the passing game. Once the band gets together and fine-tunes its timing, the music will flow and the Patriots will win the division. -- Rich Cimini
The Patriots have problems that remind me of what Bill Belichick said in the 2009 documentary about him: They are too easy to defend on offense because all opponents have to do is devote extra resources to Gronkowski and there aren’t enough other weapons to make them pay. Edelman’s return should help, and if Gordon can give them anything, that might help, too. Defensively, they look slow and can’t stop the run, which were some similar issues that were talked about at this time last year and they still made it to the Super Bowl. There’s no guarantee that it will be another successful season, but Bill Belichick and Brady deserve the benefit of the doubt at this point. -- Mike Reiss
The latter, but it depends how success is defined for the Patriots. In recent seasons in New England, the bar has been set at making and winning Super Bowls. That might be a harder task given how some questionable drafting over the past half-decade has thinned talent on both sides of the ball. Even so, New England could recover in its typical fashion to post a double-digit-win season that would meet the definition of success for most clubs. They’ve bounced back from slow September starts enough times to give them the benefit of the doubt, and the return of Edelman in Week 5 could reorient the offense back to familiar territory. -- Mike Rodak
Every time we try to dig the Patriots’ grave, they find a way to come back. This seems like a speed bump to me right now. The biggest issue seems to be a lack of weapons who can win one-on-one coverage outside of Gronkowski. That could be solved with a healthy Gordon and the Week 5 return of Edelman. The sloppiness and lack of energy is a little concerning given the controversy that swirls around the team’s key figures, but they still have the core pieces to help lead them out of that funk. Maybe this isn’t one of the better Patriots teams, which is why we are wondering if the Dolphins can unseat them as AFC East champions, but they should still be considered favorites to make the playoffs and be championship contenders because of Brady. -- Cameron Wolfe
Are the Dolphins legitimate contenders to win the division?
At this point, call me skeptical. They’ve capitalized on a soft schedule, so let’s hold off on the “Dolphins have arrived” parade. We’ll know a lot more in a couple of weeks after road games against the Patriots and Bengals. But I will say this about them: Coach Adam Gase has done a terrific job with Ryan Tannehill. In 16 starts under Gase, Tannehill is 11-5 as the quarterback. Now all he has to do is stay healthy, which has been a problem in the past. If Tannehill can stay on the field, and if they can continue their strong defensive play, then we can call them legit contenders. -- Rich Cimini
Yes, they are, and it starts with their coaching. Gase is in the third year of his program and has a solid staff around him and a locker room that is better equipped to handle adversity -- which was an offseason goal. And while the schedule should be getting a bit tougher than the first three weeks, I like where the bye week is placed for them (Week 11) compared to what they had to deal with last season (a bye in Week 1 due to Hurricane Irma). I’m not saying the Dolphins will win the division, but I wouldn’t just outright dismiss the possibility. -- Mike Reiss
Yes. But will they win it? Probably not. The Dolphins are the only AFC East team to open with two of their first three games at home. Miami’s 3-0 record is impressive and unexpected, but they’ll play their next two games on the road, so the story could change quickly. The Dolphins’ first three opponents have a combined record of 3-6, which is partly the result of Miami’s wins, yet also indicative of a softer opening slate. It was no secret entering the season that having a veteran quarterback in Tannehill would better position the Dolphins to compete with the Patriots compared to their competition in the division. The surprise to this point is the Patriots look more beatable than in most seasons. --Mike Rodak
The simple answer here is "not yet." They have exceeded expectations of the national media and are clearly the team with the best chance to dethrone the Patriots in the AFC East. Tannehill has played efficient ball, Gase has used his versatile playmakers extremely well and the Dolphins defense has created opportunistic turnovers. But I want to see them continue their winning ways in their upcoming three-game stretch against playoff contenders (at New England, at Cincinnati and at home against the Bears) before I claim them legitimate contenders. Sunday in Foxborough is the Dolphins’ first chance to prove they can pour salt in the Patriots’ wounds. If they succeed against New England or in that three-game stretch, then yes, we should consider them real contenders to win the AFC East. But right now, the Dolphins' most realistic goal should be the playoffs. --Cameron Wolfe