EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Storm clouds draped the skyline, and wind whipped off the Hudson River. Hurricane Sandy was on Gotham’s doorstep.
But the Dolphins were worried about a disaster of an entirely different sort. Just five minutes into their grudge match with the Jets, Ryan Tannehill was down — and out for the game. A knee injury was to blame.
So with their starting quarterback gone and the Jets’ defense eager to pounce, the Dolphins needed a special effort.
Their special teams were happy to oblige.
The Dolphins had two blocks in the kicking game — a field goal and a punt — executed a surprise onsides kick and got steady leadership from backup quarterback Matt Moore to blast the Jets 30-9 on Sunday in an emotionally charged affair.
By doing so, the Dolphins (4-3) crept above .500 for the first time all season and remained in control of their playoff destiny.
“It’s as good as it gets,” said Reggie Bush, who got the final word in the teams’ weeklong trash-talk-a-thon. “Once we got on them early, they kind of laid down a little bit.”
With Sandy keeping much of the Tri-State area on edge, the Jets played as if their minds were elsewhere.
The Dolphins caught them napping with an early onside kick (recovered by Jason Trusnik). New York (3-5) twice failed pick up corner blitzes while the game was still close — both resulting in sacks, including one by Nolan Carroll that forced a fumble. And the Jets’ offense was so ineffective, it couldn’t cross the 50-yard line until late in the first half.
By that point, the Dolphins had built a 20-point lead: too much to ask of even Joe Namath in his prime, let alone Mark Sanchez — who was bad in some stretches Sunday, and awful in others.
The embattled Jets quarterback completed just 28 of his 54 passes for 283 yards. He took points off the board with a costly interception near the goal line, picked off by Chris Clemons. And he could hardly move his team at all until the game’s outcome had already been decided.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, hardly missed a beat with Tannehill out of pocket. The rookie quarterback suffered a hyper-extended knee and a thigh bruise in the game’s second drive and did not return.
In his place Moore was coolly effective.
He completed 11 of 19 passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, a feathery 4-yard fade route to Anthony Fasano in the third quarter that stretched Miami’s lead to 27-3.
It was a special moment for Moore, last year’s team MVP who has been a loyal soldier since losing the battle for the starting quarterback job in training camp.
“When you get in there, manage the game, don’t turn the ball over, but at the same time, take your shots and make big plays,” Moore said. “That’s how I approached it.”
Depending on the results of Tannehill’s pending MRI, scheduled for Monday, Moore’s Broadway performance could be more than a one-night stand.
Following the game, Tannehill told reporters he felt “all right,” and could have returned Sunday in an emergency. But his body language on the sideline indicated otherwise. He limped heavily as he tested out the knee and was never given back his helmet.
The injury came on the game’s second drive, when Jets pass-rusher Calvin Pace had a free run at Tannehill. The quarterback twisted to avoid a direct hit, but in doing so, as Tannehill recalled, he “hit the ground and it started hurting.”
With a cold quarterback and the Dolphins’ running game laboring again — they needed 33 carries to gain 97 yards Sunday — it was up to the Dolphins’ defense and special teams to win the day. Both responded.
First, Jimmy Wilson blocked a punt — zipping past befuddled punt protector Tim Tebow — which Olivier Vernon recovered in the end zone.
“Coach [Darren Rizzi] told us to block the punt,” Vernon said. “We all just put our heads down and went for it like dogs.”
Later, Carroll had his strip-sack which set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Daniel Thomas.
Vernon wasn’t done, deflecting a 38-yard field goal attempt by Nick Folk and preserving a first-half shutout.
Kicker Dan Carpenter, who had two costly misses the first time the teams played, did his part as well, connecting on field-goal attempts from 33, 39 and 42 yards.
And Marcus Thigpen helped salt the game away with a 57-yard kickoff return, which led to Moore’s only touchdown pass.
With that, most of the 79,088 that filled MetLife Stadium Sunday began filing out. Home they went, presumably to buy water bottles and pile sand bags ahead of this week’s monster storm.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, escaped town Sunday evening with a three-game winning streak, and a message to their doubters: We’re here for the long haul.
“We came up here to dominate in all three phases,” said guard Richie Incognito, “and that’s what we did.”