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Dolphins vs. Broncos final score: 3 things we learned in a valiant Miami loss

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The Dolphins put up a strong effort against the Broncos on the road, but fell just short of what would have been a critical win for their postseason hopes.

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A season ago, few would have imagined that Ryan Tannehill could be in a quarterback duel with Peyton Manning, much less hold his own. Against the future Hall of Famer, Tannehill was steady, going 26-for-36 for 228 yards and three touchdowns. A late pick was the only big mistake the Dolphins made on the day, but it proved pivotal in a 39-36 loss.

Miami didn't trail until roughly 5:01 remained in the game. It took a 7-0 lead with a Daniel Thomas touchdown run in the first quarter, and largely held the Broncos at bay from there. The Dolphins were able to keep Manning and Co. quiet with sustained offensive drives. Lamar Miller was effective rushing the ball and Tannehill was consistent.

But Miami couldn't keep Denver quiet for long. Brandon Fields punted the ball to the Broncos in the fourth quarter, and Denver mounted a six-minute drive that proved to be a back breaker. Manning went 6-for-7 passing on the 70-yard drive, which was capped by a C.J. Anderson's 10-yard burst for a score.

Then the Dolphins took over, and after playing mistake-free football for more than 56 minutes, Tannehill's pass intended for Jarvis Landry bounced off the wideout's hands ended landed in the mitts of the Broncos' T.J. Ward. The pick essentially ended any hope the Dolphins had of earning a critical win in Denver.

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Manning threw his fourth touchdown pass of the day -- two yards to Wes Welker -- to effectively cap the game. Miami marched on the Broncos to score, and got a 2-point conversion to pull the score within three points.

Three things:

1) Ryan Tannehill is getting there

It's weird to refer to a No. 8 overall pick as "black sheep," but compared to the rest of the 2012 quarterback class, Ryan Tannehill was sort of an outcast. He was considered a reach, and his play through two seasons justified that conclusion.

Tannehill has been MUCH better in 2014. He had a 92.2 quarterback rating entering Sunday's game, and only improved that figure by going 26-for-36 passing for 228 yards, three scores and a pick.

Tannehill was careful, accurate on the run, and made key plays with a feet. He isn't the perfect quarterback, but he's better than viable. He has the Dolphins playing well offensively, and Miami is in good position for a wild card spot as a result.

2) The Broncos' losses weren't fluky

Denver is a mortal team. Miami had success against the defense on the ground and through the air. The passing game is still excellent, but doesn't quite reach the stratospheric heights of the 2013 offense.

The Broncos' loss to the New England Patriots three weeks ago was understandable, and a loss to the St. Louis Rams last weeks could be chalked up as a fluke, given St. Louis' propensity for only showing against its biggest opponents.

A tough round at home to a good, but imperfect, Dolphins team feels like something else. The Dolphins have, more or less, beat the shaky teams on their schedule and lost to the better squads. This was a barometer game, and the conclusion is that Denver is a very good team with faults.

With a win, the Broncos improved to 8-3, but a Super Bowl appearance doesn't feel like the foregone conclusion it was at this point last season.

3) The Dolphins may be this year's good team that doesn't make the Playoffs

Like the Cardinals last year, sometimes good teams don't get a well-earned chance to prove their mettle in the postseason. That could be this year's Dolphins squad, which fell to 6-5. Miami has virtually no hope of catching the New England atop the AFC East, and in a competitive conference a wild card bid may be difficult to obtain.

Miami will likely need to win a game it shouldn't. Two games against the New York Jets and another against the Minnesota Vikings are winnable. Stealing a win in Foxborough on Dec. 14 or at home against Baltimore on Dec. 7 would give Miami a much-needed 10th win assuming it takes care of business against weaker teams.

Unfortunately, the way the AFC is playing out, 9-7 may not be enough. Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City and San Diego -- the AFC North and West, essentially -- all have at least seven wins, putting the runner-ups in those divisions in better position for the postseason.