This prime-time game that hauled the Dolphins chaotically to midseason Thursday night felt bigger than its immediate impact. It felt bigger than just finding a tourniquet for a four-game losing streak and reclaiming the idea that this is (should be/could be) an NFL playoff team.
It felt like desperation — every bit of that. Like everything was fragile. Or simmering and ready to boil.
It felt like Dolphins stadium might erupt into pent-up, we’re-sick-of-it booing if this game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals went wrong.
It felt like the hot seat would find coach Joe Philbin fast if the playoff chance kept receding, and that the dormant animus toward general manager Jeff Ireland was ready to rise up and bite.
Most ominously, it felt like fundamental, growing doubts about slumping young quarterback Ryan Tannehill could begin to take root if his turnovers (14 in the first seven games; nine interceptions and five lost fumbles) continued at close to a crisis level.
We were about to find out what desperation meant — and see about this team’s heart and spine — because this felt like a game Miami had damn well better win.
So it was that this dramatic 22-20 Dolphins’ Halloween night victory — in overtime, on a safety, no less — didn’t deliver any emotion more than, simply, relief.
It was only the third time in league history a safety ended a game in OT, and this one produced a collective exhale, like when you barely dodge something really bad.
That feeling swept all over the stadium around midnight as Cameron Wake sacked Andy Dalton in the end zone, the play withstood an officials’ review, and Miami finally won again.
“This was a very big win,” the buttoned-down Philbin had to admit.
Holiday-festive fans showed up dressed as zombies, animals, superheroes and pirates. The cheerleaders were outfitted as skeletons. Hulk Hogan was here as well, as Hulk Hogan.
The zombie motif was almost too real. A Miami loss would have given this team and season the pall of the walking dead.
Instead, all that mattered was that nobody left the stadium dressed as a sad Dolfan.
Man, did this franchise need this win!
It didn’t make everything right, no.
But it made everything seem more manageable, less out of control.
It ended that four-game skid and leveled the record at 4-4 halfway through. With the schedule softening a bit now — winless Tampa Bay is next, then a pair of home games — it rekindled the playoff hopes that were so buoyant (remember?) after that 3-0 start.
This team didn’t just need this night, this performance — it needed it now.
This national-stage game on the NFL Network followed the most chaotic, stressful Dolphins week in memory, a week that left you wondering what else could possibly go wrong. (And knowing a loss Thursday would have been the answer to that.)
It wasn’t just the four-game skid.
It was blowing a late lead at home to division rival Buffalo.
It was being embarrassed by 24 unanswered second-half points in a loss at New England.
It was the apparent regression of Tannehill.
And it was the double-controversy rocking an already shaky offensive line and visiting the infamous “off-field distraction” to a team already reeling.
First, center Mike Pouncey got subpoenaed in the murder case involving former Patriots player Aaron Hernandez, with the club’s reticence to comment only magnifying the issue.
Then embattled tackle Jonathan Martin abruptly left the team under emotional duress after ribbing by teammates was taken wrong.
There were ensuing reports of growing dissension in the locker room and even among the coaching staff as the off-field turmoil piled onto the losses.
This was the burden the Dolphins carried into Thursday night in the incongruous context of fans dressed for a holiday party.
It is hard to say Miami did not deserve the victory. Tannehill played turnover-free. Lamar Miller topped 100 yards rushing. And the Wake-led defense rose when absolutely needed.
A Halloween to remember for a team that so desperately needed to hear cheering again.