INDIANAPOLIS — The Patriots have been in pretty firm control of the AFC East for the last decade or so — New England has won nine of the last 10 division titles, with the only break coming in 2008 when the Dolphins finished first.
But heading into the 2013 season, the team who has the best chance to challenge the Patriots for the division title appears to be Miami. The Dolphins surprised several people with a strong finish — including wins in two of their last three games — on the way to a 7-9 finish and second place behind New England. That, combined with the fact they are more than $40 million under the cap, gives Miami GM Jeff Ireland hope that the Dolphins can close the gap in the not-too-distant future.
“There’s a gap,” Ireland acknowledged Thursday morning at the scouting combine. “Certainly, [the Patriots have] won the division quite a bit. We have to close that gap. I think it’s a five-game gap, right now, in wins and losses. That’s what the gap is. We have to close that gap, and we plan to do our best job and put our best foot forward and getting that done this offseason. Whether we can completely close the gap … we have to get back on the field and close the gap on the field. It doesn’t really make a lot of sense to talk about it right now.”
Part of the reason for the gap between the Patriots and the rest of the division is because of the quarterback — no matter the supporting cast, Tom Brady  has been able to consistently give New England enough separation between the Patriots and the rest of the division. In Miami, Ireland expressed optimism that Ryan Tannehill — who just finished his rookie year — is trending in the right direction.
“As I’ve said before, Ryan has 35 or 36 games under his belt as a starting quarterback combined, from a college and pro career. You’d normally like to have 35 games under your belt as a graduating senior,” Ireland said of Tannehill, who ended his first season with 3,294 passing yards, a 58 percent completion rate, 12 touchdowns and 13 picks.
“I still think there’s a bunch of upside left in Ryan’s potential. I like what I see so far. I love intangible makeup. I love his athletic skill set. We have a long way to go — he knows that. But he can get a lot better. I’m confident in that.”