This is how it’s going to have to be if the Dolphins are going to matter this season.
Someone is going to have to make one play. It’s going to have to happen in the moment of highest drama. And the Dolphins are going to need it week after week.
That’s all that has separated these Dolphins from victory the past three games.
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Against the Jets, the Dolphins were every bit as good as their opponents and all they needed was that one play
Then somebody missed a kick. Or somebody threw an interception. Or somebody gave up a 38-yard pass even while holding the wide receiver that caught that pass. No one came up with that one play and the Dolphins lost.
Against the Cardinals the Dolphins were again every bit as good as their opponent. If you doubt that you didn’t see Arizona lay an ostrich-sized egg against St. Louis. But even in a game quarterback Ryan Tannehill threw for over 400 yards and defensive end Cameron Wake had 4.5 sacks and cornerback Sean Smith had two interceptions, the Dolphins needed one more play.
They needed one more pass knocked down. Or one more rushing first down. Or one more field goal. But no one came up with that one play and the Dolphins lost.
On Sunday, the Dolphins again proved themselves every bit as good as the Bengals. Forget that Cincinnati had three victories in four previous games. Forget that the Bengals were at home. None of that mattered in the final 1:45 when quarterback Andy Dalton and his offense got the football at their own 20 down 17-13 but with a chance to win.
The Dolphins again found themselves one play away from victory.
But this time, someone delivered.
Reshad Jones plucked a Dalton pass from the air with 1:30 to play and in doing so helped the Dolphins hold on to their first road win in the Joe Philbin era.
Suddenly it didn’t matter that Dan Carpenter missed another important field goal or that Charles Clay ran out of bounds short of the first down a series before to open the door for a Bengals rally.
It didn’t even matter that the offense that moved the football with such ease a week ago mostly struggled on Sunday.
“I actually thought we played worse this week,” running back Reggie Bush said. “I didn’t think we played that great today, especially on offense. We struggled a little bit. We had some mistakes that hurt us. But you know what? We got the win.
“That’s what’s most important thing. We finished the game off and now we can use this as a positive and as momentum for next week.”
Everything we’ve seen from these Dolphins the past month suggests most of what we’ll see the next two months – at least until December when the schedule turns ugly – will be games that come down to the end.
Most of what we’ve seen for weeks now suggests the Dolphins will be one play away every week. Maybe that won’t be the case when they play San Francisco and New England twice in December because those two teams are elite and Miami simply is not.
But from now until the end of the November against mediocre teams such as Tennessee, St. Louis, Indianapolis, Buffalo, Seattle and the Jets again, this team is going to stay close enough to win at the end.
This team is going to be one play away from success a lot.
And the season will probably be determined by whether the Dolphins deliver that play like they did against the Bengals or can’t find that playmaker as happened against New York and Arizona.
“It all comes down to making plays in crucial situations,” Sean Smith said. “At the end today it was the two minute drill and Reshad came up with the big play. A couple of plays before that Olivier [Vernon] made a good play across the middle. He laid out for a good [pass break up]. That was huge for us.
“In the past we haven’t been making those plays. And we finally did it and we’re trying to build on it and look forward to next week.”
It’s true the Dolphins this game did things that had to be done to put themselves in a position to win – or lose – at the end of the ballgame.
Ryan Tannehill didn’t make any glaring mistakes and in avoiding turnovers, he delivered a 92.3 rating that is the highest of his professional career.
Randy Starks did the improbable and intercepted a pass while also delivering his consistently good defensive line play. Wake had another sack. And Bush, contained to only 48 yards on 19 carries, showed a burst on a 13-yard touchdown run.
“It was a great team win,” Philbin said.
But all that effort is what we’ve come to expect from the Dolphins every week. It is not new. The effort this week was no greater than the Dolphins delivered the past couple of weeks in forcing overtimes against New York and Arizona. Maybe it was even less.
That didn’t determine the outcome.
The difference was the Dolphins finding a hero. The difference was that hero delivering the game-defining play. The difference was a team that has been one play away the past several weeks finding somebody to finally make that play.