There were still four minutes to play Sunday when Richie Incognito turned to the New York Jets bench and mockingly waved good-bye to the players on the other sideline. The guard was simply dismissing the Jets for the afternoon because this game was long over and the Dolphins had already done all their damage.
But that wave was much more transcendent than that.
That wave marked the Dolphins passing the Jets this year.
That wave spoke to how one team is obviously and steadily improving while the other team has not only paused but seems to be in full-tilt retreat.
The proof? Dolphins 30. Jets 9.
“We have high expectations for ourselves,” receiver Brian Hartline said. “We’re humble but we’re also hungry. We really looked forward to playing this game and hoping to take a step forward and this game obviously helps us take that step forward.
“We’re not the same team we were in Week Three. But feeling that way and proving it to ourselves and other people is a lot different. So we needed to take that step and it’s a step we took.”
Hartline calls it only a step but the Dolphins seem light years removed from the team that lost to these Jets on Sept. 23 at Sun Life Stadium.
That team had trouble closing games. That team was betrayed by special teams when kicker Dan Carpenter missed a potential game-winning field goal. That team couldn’t even protect its home field.
The Dolphins have won three games in a row now and they’ve made a point of closing strong. On Sunday Miami took a 20-0 halftime lead — and then outscored the Jets 10-9 in the second half as well.
These Dolphins got their first touchdown from their special teams when Jimmy Wilson blocked a punt, Olivier Vernon recovered in the end zone, and somewhere on the Jets sideline, Mike Westhoff’s heart dropped in disgust.
These Dolphins have now won two key road games against AFC opponents the past month. And this was the first road victory against an AFC East opponent since Joe Philbin became coach.
“We’ve grown a little bit up as a team,” tight end Anthony Fasano said. “We’re not shooting ourselves in the foot as much and we’ve figured out how to finish games and win games. We’ve got a long way to go, but we’ve made some progress.”
Progress today is marked by the fact the Dolphins are second in the AFC East. And they clearly are better than the Jets.
The Jets are playing worse now than earlier in the year and, indeed, laid an egg this day after actually playing well during an overtime loss to the Patriots the week before. That’s called regression.
The Jets also have an unsustainable quarterback situation. Mark Sanchez is playing the role of a franchise quarterback but in truth he’s performing like he needs to be benched.
Sanchez threw an interception, suffered a fumble and delivered a 65.6 quarterback rating that had Jets fans booing him as early as the first quarter. Talk about patience running thin.
The Dolphins, meanwhile, are looking pretty solid at quarterback right now.
Remember they won this game while starter Ryan Tannehill watched from the bench because he hyper-extended his left knee and suffered a deep left thigh bruise on Miami’s second possession.
Backup Matt Moore, who coach Joe Philbin estimates got 10 percent of the snaps in practice last week, went in the game and was the best quarterback for either team. He completed 11 of 19 passes, threw a touchdown, stayed away from any turnovers, and turned in a 96.6 quarterback rating.
The team rallied around Moore as surely as it rallied and came to the defense of running back Reggie Bush.
Remember, Bush was the targeted by a couple of Jets defenders who said last week they wanted to knock him out of the game. Aaron Maybin was one of those players and throughout the day Miami offensive linemen waited for Maybin to actually enter the game so they could, ahem, speak with him.
When Maybin finally got in, center Mike Pouncey, tackle Jake Long and guard Richie Incognito went after him, apparently ignoring their actual blocking assignments, and forming something of a triple team to try and pancake the linebacker.
“No, we didn’t do that” Incognito said playfully.
“As long as they didn’t blow the whistle, it’s all legal.” Pouncey said.
The offensive linemen were joking and in a playful mood in the locker room. But the Dolphins are serious about this:
“This game shows the NFL what we can do,” Pouncey said. “I think we deserve a little bit of respect now that we’ve turned things around and we’re winning games.
“We’re playing good football right now. All the players on the team have bought in to this new program. The future is bright for this football team. You don’t want to speak too much on it, but if we keep doing what we’re doing, we’re going to win a lot of football games this year.”