Bad teams tend to lose games they should win. Good teams do the opposite.
On Sunday, the Dolphins won a game that even their coach admitted defied football logic.
They were outgained by the St. Louis Rams 462-192. They managed 10 fewer first downs than their opposition and controlled the ball for seven fewer minutes. They had two turnovers taken off the board by instant replay. And they endured the fourth-worst rushing day in franchise history.
But here’s perhaps the most surprising stat of them all: The Dolphins enter their bye week with both momentum and national relevance.
Miami fended off a talented but mistake-prone Rams outfit 17-14 on Sunday for their second consecutive hold-on-for-dear-life win, vaulting the Dolphins into a four-way tie atop the AFC East.
After wasting back-to-back strong efforts with costly late errors earlier this season, the Dolphins (3-3) have now won games in consecutive weeks in which their poise and perseverance carried the day. The loss dropped St. Louis to 3-3 as well.
“[Last year] we lost [a bunch of] games in the fourth quarter or the last two minutes,” linebacker Kevin Burnett said. “It becomes a habit after the second or third time. You have to break that habit, period.
Defense does it
“A lot of people say it takes three days to break a habit,” Burnett added. “It takes about three games of not losing in the fourth quarter to break a habit, in order to win.”
One more game — say, in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets in two weeks — would do the trick.
On the same afternoon a pair of legends — Zach Thomas and Jason Taylor — were added to the Dolphins Honor Roll, the game, fittingly, came down to a defensive stop.
Olivier Vernon’s sack on St. Louis’ final drive turned Greg Zuerlein’s potentially game-tying field goal from tough into unprecedented.
Had Zuerlein connected on his 66-yard boot at the gun, he would have shattered the NFL record for longest field goal. Instead, his effort — like his two previous tries — sailed to the left, allowing the 52,983 in attendance to exhale in relief.
“I think it really showed what we’re really capable of if we’re all playing together,” said Reggie Bush, who managed just 17 yards on 12 carries. “No matter what challenges we face during the game or adversity, we can still pull through as long as we just play good, team football. We needed this.”
Added Cameron Wake, who had one sack that counted and another erased by instant replay: “Nobody counted on us to be like this at the beginning of the season, nobody outside this locker room. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
To be sure, they took the road less traveled on Sunday. And the long-term outlook isn’t great when you’re outgained by more than 2-to-1, and the league’s most productive receiver (at least when the day began) — Brian Hartline — goes without a catch.
Meanwhile, five different Rams receivers had catches of 20 yards or longer and St. Louis ball carriers averaged 6.0 yards per rush. As for the Dolphins, their offensive struggles were at times so pronounced, they had a scoring drive of four plays and 0 yards late in the first half.
And midway through the fourth quarter, the Dolphins had a grand total of 4 — yes, 4 — rushing yards. They finished with 19 on 18 carries. (The franchise record for ground futility, by the way, is 7 rushing yards, set in 2006 — also a Miami win.)
So how, exactly, could the Dolphins even dream of staggering out of Sun Life Stadium on top?
They got the most efficient game yet out of Ryan Tannehill (21 of 29 passes for 185 yards and two touchdowns). They forced a turnover while committing none. They executed a gutsy fake punt in their own territory with just minutes to play. And they allowed just one touchdown in St. Louis’ three trips into the red zone.
“You’ve got guys that just want to win,” said Tannehill, who threw touchdown passes to Marlon Moore and Anthony Fasano.
Plus, put bluntly, they were lucky. In a way, Sunday’s win was the through-the-looking-glass version of the Jets loss three weeks earlier.
Just one example: Dan Carpenter missed two field goals on that day. Zuerlein, a rookie perfect on the first 15 attempts of his career, misfired on his final three tries Sunday.
Another head-scratcher: Rams quarterback Sam Bradford threw for 315 yards, didn’t turn the ball over — and still lost.
Finding things out
But the Dolphins defense, which blew fourth-quarter leads to the Jets and Cardinals, made a late 11-point edge stand up. And, most importantly, on the game’s final drive, they made the afternoon’s last play.
Vernon’s sack of Bradford — his second and Miami’s third on the afternoon — didn’t just help seal the game. It began to change the narrative surrounding a team that is suddenly dangerous and confident.
“Now, everybody’s right in front of us,” said Burnett, who played through an injured ankle Sunday but was well enough to chase down a Rams receiver and break up a deep pass.
“Pretty soon, we’re going to find out a lot about ourselves, because we’re going to have to string together a bunch of games in very few days on the road. Here we go.”