Before the NFL season began, many pondered whether the Miami Dolphins were prepared to take a big step forward, and some even thought they could potentially challenge the New England Patriots atop the AFC East.

These thoughts were born of the potential of quarterback Ryan Tannehill to show significant improvement in his second NFL season, as well as a successful offseason both in free agency and in the draft. The Dolphin’s 3-0 start to the season warrants a deeper look into whether this fast start proves that the Dolphins are indeed for real and pose a threat to the Patriots and the rest of the AFC or if their success early in the season is merely an aberration.

The three teams the Dolphins have beaten would point toward Miami being for real this season. A road win over Cleveland to start the season can be brushed off, but their week 2 win at Indianapolis needs to be taken seriously, especially after the Colts dominated San Francisco this past weekend. Not only did Ryan Tannehill go toe to toe with Andrew Luck, the crown jewel of the 2012 quarterback class, but Tannehill out played Luck in many respects, completing a higher percentage of his passes than Luck and not turning the ball over.

Miami’s week 3 win over Atlanta is also an impressive victory for the Dolphins, as the Falcons have become a perennial contender in the NFC. Tannehill performed at the same level as Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the only difference being that when the game was on the line, it was Tannehill that led his team on a game-winning drive in the final minutes, showcasing the poise and execution of a seasoned veteran. Tannehill has performed better than anyone could have expected him to over the first three games of the season, as his play has compared favorably to more established quarterbacks and allowed the Dolphins to beat quality opponents.

Of course, Tannehill isn’t doing it alone; the whole Dolphins team is playing well, especially in the second half. Miami has outscored their opponents 41-16 in the second half of games this season, which is a substantial point difference just three games into the season. It indicates that the coaching staff is making good adjustments at halftime and that the players are at their best when the game’s on the line, both of which indicate that their success is sustainable over 16 games.

Also pertinent is the fact that Miami has committed the fourth fewest penalties in the NFL, which indicates that they’re a disciplined football team that doesn’t beat themselves. In the NFL, a team that’s getting good play from it’s quarterback and isn’t beating themselves with penalties and turnovers is going to have a chance to win on a weekly basis, which is why the Dolphins have been in position to win with strong second half performances the first three weeks of the season.

That’s not to say that the Dolphins have done everything perfect this season. Tannehill is getting sacked far too often, while Miami’s pass rush isn’t returning the favor on opposing quarterbacks. Miami’s rushing attack hasn’t been as productive as it needs to be and new acquisition Mike Wallace has been under-utilized, in part due to injury. One could go as far to say that there’s too much pressure on Tannehill, and while he’s handled it so far, at a certain point he’s going to need more support.

After all their early success, the Dolphins will really be put to the test this week, as they play a Monday night road against the New Orleans Saints, who have also started the season 3-0, meaning somebody will be leaving the Super Dome with their first loss of the season. If Miami wins this game, there will be no doubt that they’re for real. But even if they lose, the Dolphins have done enough over the first three weeks to indicate that they have indeed made significant progress from last year, and if Tannehill keeps performing the way he has, the Patriots will have some serious competition in the AFC East.