Call it coincidence or call it déjá vu, but there’s one thing you can’t call the way Dolphins end games:
For the third time in as many weeks, the Dolphins led in the fourth quarter, only to see the opposition come storming back. On this chilly afternoon, however, there would be no collapse. Reshad Jones made sure of that.
Jones, the Dolphins’ third-year safety, picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton late in regulation Sunday to preserve a 17-13, nerve-fraying road victory that snapped Miami’s two-game losing streak.
“I knew it was going to come down to us on the backend to make a play, and we did,” Jones said in a relieved Dolphins locker room afterward. “I told me teammates [beforehand], ‘We’re going to keep scratching and clawing, whatever it takes to come out with a win, that’s what we’re going to do.’ ”
Here’s exactly what it took: the defense forcing three turnovers, Ryan Tannehill outdueling Dalton, and the Dolphins shutting down Cincinnati’s dangerous offense twice in the game’s final four minutes, including the knuckle-whitening final drive.
The Dolphins looked to have the affair wrapped up when Bengals kicker Mike Nugent botched a routine, 41-yard field goal with just over three minutes remaining.
But instead of running out the clock, Dolphins tight end Charles Clay inexplicably ran out of bounds on a critical third down. That allowed Cincinnati to take over at its own 20 with 1:45 left, needing 80 yards to hand the Dolphins a third consecutive crushing defeat — and officially derail their season.
“You think about it,” admitted defensive tackle Randy Starks, who had the Dolphins’ other interception Sunday. “You know what it feels like, and you don’t want to be in that situation again.”
Added receiver Brian Hartline: “We were like, ‘Bail us out. Do what you’ve got to do.’ ”
The Bengals faced second-and-20 from their 23, Dalton looked for speedster Andrew Hawkins on a deep post. But the throw sailed high, and Jones — backing up the play in support — made the game-clinching interception.
And with that, the Dolphins wrote a new ending to a story that played out not just the past three weeks (in losses to the Jets and Cardinals), but several times every week in practice.
Practice pays off
Dolphins coach Joe Philbin regularly runs end-of-game scenarios back in Davie.
The offense needs to drive the length of the field to win just a little over a minute left on the clock. The defense’s job: stop them at any cost.
“Lo and behold, we go out there, they needed a touchdown, and we knew we had to step up and make plays,” defensive end Cameron Wake said. “That one play that we didn’t make last week, we made [Sunday].”
And in doing so, the Dolphins preserved another efficient game from their young quarterback, who appears to be getting better each week. Tannehill didn’t have the gaudy pure stats Sunday that he amassed in Arizona, but might have played a better all-around game.
He completed 17 of 26 passes for 223 yards, the most accurate afternoon in his budding career.
And more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over after coughing it up twice late against the Cardinals.
“The pressure mounts, but I think that’s what brings the best out of a good quarterback,” said Tannehill, who found Hartline four times for 59 yards. “I try to take advantage of those situations and make plays when I have the chance.”
Dalton, meanwhile, struggled against Miami’s shorthanded secondary. Richard Marshall didn’t play because of an injured back, and Nolan Carroll left with a head injury on the first play of the third quarter, although ultimately he returned.
Still, Dalton misfired on 17 of his 43 passes and threw the two picks. He finished with 234 yards and also had a 2-yard touchdown pass to A.J. Green.
Meanwhile, neither team ran the ball particularly well. The Dolphins had a combined 68 yards on 35 carries, including 19 for 48 for Reggie Bush. But both Bush and Daniel Thomas tallied touchdown runs, and Dan Carpenter nailed a 46-yard field goal to give Miami just enough scoring to set up the late drama.
It was a situation Philbin prepped his group for in a team meeting Saturday evening. The Dolphins’ first-year coach — who won on the road for the first time Sunday — told his players that Sunday’s game wouldn’t come down to scheme or play calls.
Instead, it would come down to “the team that has the most desire and believes they’re going to win,” he said.
On Sunday, for the first time in nearly since mid-September, the Dolphins were that team.
“We’ve been through some tough losses, and I think I kind of learned from it, and it showed [Sunday],” tight end Anthony Fasano said. “All the odds were against us, we could have made a ton of excuses, but we didn’t let that seep into [Sunday].”