The Dolphins have gotten good enough that this day it would have taken a heroic 97-yard touchdown drive with only 1:41 to play to beat them, and as cornerback Sean Smith was thinking, that wasn’t happening.
“No way they were going 97 yards on us to win that game,” Smith said. “No way. No how. No possible chance on Earth that we were going to let them go 97 yards on us today.”
The Dolphins have become good enough that this day it would have taken an all-time NFL record 66-yard field goal — a kick that would have shattered the league record by three yards — to merely tie them.
Sorry, while Rams rookie kicker Greg Zuerlein may have Gus the Mule range, he lacks the accuracy. So wide left.
Dolphins win 17-14.
And with the bye now allowing for a week of convalescence and correction and, yes, reflection, the least that can be said about these Dolphins is this:
Joe Philbin’s team is better today than it was merely six weeks ago when the season began. This team is making fewer mistakes. This team is making more plays. This team is closing games.
The Dolphins, in short, are pointed in the right direction.
“No question we’re better,” guard Richie Incognito said. “Each and every week we’ve taken small strides and small victories to improve. The opening week we had all the turnovers and now we’re not turning the ball over. That’s critical to our success. I think game by game, week by week, we’ve gotten better and better and we’re starting to find some traction.”
They’re not just finding traction, they’re finding confidence.
The Dolphins had precious little of that when the season began. Blame a winless preseason. Blame the last three losing seasons.
But the Dolphins didn’t seem to know they could win every week when the season began. Now, with a .500 record and two consecutive victories to their credit, they’re getting it. They believe.
“We have a better chemistry. Guys have more confidence in themselves. They believe in themselves more,” Philbin said.
So what does all this mean?
Well, the manifestation of six weeks’ worth of improvement and heightened confidence was evident Sunday.
The Dolphins won a game that even Philbin conceded they lost on the stat sheet. They won a game in which they gained only 6 yards rushing the first half and had that whittled to 4 rushing yards by the end of the third quarter before finishing with only 19 all day.
They won a game when leading receiver Brian Hartline did not catch a pass.
They won a game when they yielded a season-high 462 yards.
Despite all those factors working against them, the Dolphins still worked off the best recipe for winning. They didn’t turn the ball over. They won the turnover battle by recovering a St. Louis fumble on a kickoff. And rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill played like a veteran.
The youngster had his most efficient game. He completed a season-best 72 percent of his passes. He finished with a season-high 112 quarterback rating.
He didn’t make spectacular plays, but he was outstanding when the Dolphins needed it. How else to describe that touchdown drive to open the third quarter, which gave the Dolphins their winning points?
Tannehill completed seven of eight passes that series.
“I thought his decision-making was good again,” Philbin said. “He played a smart game. Didn’t give the ball to the opposition. There weren’t a lot of throws that they had more guys than we had. I’m not saying everything is perfect or everything was 100 percent, but when you don’t throw the ball to the other team, that’s a good place to start.
“I thought he was efficient and ran the offense good.”
And I think the coaching staff did a magnificent job.
The play-calling on that third-quarter drive was impressive. The fake punt that Chris Clemons turned into a first down with a 3-yard run was courageous and was the culmination of a week’s worth of identifying a St. Louis weakness and then practicing it time and again.
The Dolphins kept the football an extra 2 1/2 minutes because of that successful fake, so they gave St. Louis the football with 1:41 to play instead of 4:15.
Using the clock
There was also this: Offensive coordinator Mike Sherman raised eyebrows in losses to the Jets and Arizona when he continued throwing the ball at a time that it was probably better to run and burn time off the clock.
This game, in a similar situation, Sherman called runs on four of his final five plays. It chewed seconds off the clock. It worked.
So where can all this lead? How good can a team that is steadily improving be?
“The ceiling? It’s a long way from here, I’ll tell you that much,” Karlos Dansby said. “We’re nowhere near there right now. We got a lot of growing to do. That’s from the head down. But everyday we strive to get better and that’s why you play the game — to get better.
“It’s definitely gotten better. But we’re still a long way from being perfect.”