Stephen Ross stepped out of the Dolphins’ locker room, still beaming from his biggest win as team owner and let loose.
“We’ve got a damn good football team,” Ross told the swarm of reporters.
And a pretty good quarterback, too.
Ryan Tannehill directed a legacy-forming, outcome-changing touchdown drive late Sunday, rallying the Dolphins past the Falcons 27-23 to give Miami its first 3-0 start since 2002.
With 38 seconds left in a game the Dolphins hadn’t led, Tannehill connected with Dion Sims on a 1-yard touchdown strike. It was the first catch of the rookie tight end’s professional career, and Tannehill’s first fourth-quarter, come-from-behind, game-winning touchdown pass.
“Monumental,” receiver Brian Hartline said of the drive. “The best of the best do that, and he’s definitely played himself into the circle.”
Added center Mike Pouncey: “He’s a monster. He’s taken the next step.”
As the Dolphins huddled for the final drive, 75 yards away from victory, Tannehill told his team that no matter what transpired in the 55 minutes that preceded it, all that mattered was what the Dolphins did from that point forward.
Then he lived his words. His touchdown pass was the perfect demonstration of both Tannehill’s improved accuracy and his role as the offense’s unquestioned leader.
The Dolphins faced second-and-goal at Atlanta’s 1 when the Falcons called timeout to regroup. Given the added time, Tannehill suggested a play to offensive coordinator Mike Sherman: a fade to Sims to the left sideline. It would either be a touchdown or a throwaway.
Thanks to a powerful one-handed catch with a defender draped all over him, Sims made sure it was a touchdown.
“It was awesome,” Sims said. “Absolutely a perfect throw over the top. It was up to me to make the play.”
The score capped an impressive 75-yard march that all but welcomed Tannehill to the big time. The Dolphins ran 13 plays on the drive; Tannehill threw 12 passes, completing nine of them for 69 yards.
And two of his incompletions were due to drops, including a likely touchdown to Lamar Miller on a wheel route out of the backfield.
Yet Tannehill came right back the next play with a third-down completion to Brandon Gibson, who moved the chains twice on the drive.
Gibson then pulled in a 7-yard reception that set up the game-winning play. In all, Tannehill completed 24 of 35 passes for 236 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Tannehill connected with nine different receivers; his quarterback rating was above 90 for the second consecutive week.
Still, the Falcons had a chance, however slight, down four with 38 remaining in regulation.
And considering how Atlanta (1-2) moved the ball against the injury-ravaged Dolphins’ defense — the Falcons outgained Miami 377-285 and controlled the ball for more than 37 minutes — anything seemed possible.
The Dolphins, already down Paul Soliai and Dimitri Patterson, lost fellow starters Cameron Wake (knee) and Koa Misi (shoulder) during the course of the game.
That meant role guys such as Jimmy Wilson — who were thrust into duty — were left to decide it. Wilson didn’t disappoint, intercepting Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on his final throw of the game.
Tannehill wasn’t perfect; far from. He lost a fumble on a play in which his ball security was poor, and threw a floating interception that bounced off Charles Clay’s hands.
But Tannehill also made a series of big-time throws, including an 18-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Hartline late in the third quarter. The catch was harder than it looked.
“Of course the only spot where the sun was left in the stadium decided to find the football and I couldn’t see it,” said Hartline, who had four catches for 56 yards. “So I decided to catch the black dot and it worked out pretty well.”
It worked out so well that Hartline and Pouncey gave Dolphins coach Joe Philbin a celebratory ice bath in the locker room after the game.
It was about the only thing that can cool down the Dolphins, who finished the day as just one of three 3-0 teams in the AFC.
“All you can say is guys stepped up and made plays when it counted,” Tannehill said.