If you're looking for someone or something to blame in the Dolphins' latest loss —a 20-16 gut shot to the Panthers on Sunday — there are plenty of options.
A scoreless final 31 minutes. An atrocious end to the first half. Suspect officiating. Getting outgained 136-52 on the ground. Zero touchdowns in two red-zone trips.
But the Dolphins (5-6) wake up Monday in a six-way tie for the AFC's sixth seed instead of a game up on the field for one reason above all:
With the game — and potentially the season — on the line, they couldn't make a stop on fourth-and-10 late in the fourth quarter.
“If we could have got off the field,” linebacker Philip Wheeler said, “I think we would have won the game.”
Was Cam Newton's game-extending 19-yard pass to Steve Smith a backbreaker?
“I'm not sure there's any other words to describe that, so yeah, sure,” said defensive end Jared Odrick.
Smith, who had five catches for 69 yards, lined up wide right, then broke off an in route just beyond the sticks. He split a double-team, broke a tackle and went for 19 yards.
Eight plays later, the Panthers (8-3) scored the go-ahead touchdown, a 1-yard pass from Newton to Greg Olsen, condemning the Dolphins to their sixth loss in eight games.
But not before Mike Wallace and Ryan Tannehill had one final near-miss on a day in which they finally connected on a couple of deep balls. Down four with 18 seconds left at the Dolphins’ 40, Tannehill double-pumped then uncorked a pass that traveled more than 60 yards in the air.
Wallace was behind the defensive backfield, but had trouble tracking the ball. It ended up hitting him in the hands before it hit the ground.
Yet Wallace — who had 127 yards on five catches, including a 53-yard touchdown reception — said that was just one of many chances the Dolphins had to put the game away.
“Weﾒve got to have a killer instinct,” Wallace said. “I donﾒt think we really have it that well.”
The 2013 season, seen as a whole, backs that up. They're 4-4 in games decided by less than one score. The Dolphins haven't managed a fourth-quarter offensive touchdown in their past seven games. And they have been outscored 127-99 after halftime on the season.
On Sunday, the Dolphins allowed Carolina to score the game's final 17 points, including a field goal on the Panthers' final drive of the first half and a touchdown on their first drive of the second.
Execution plays a role, for sure. But coaching does too. The Panthers made adjustments Sunday that helped turn the game around, Wheeler said.
“They took our best punch in the first half and came out swinging,” Wheeler said. “On a couple of their runs, they showed us some things we didn't see in the first half.”
That helps explain how the Dolphins surrendered 4.7 yards per carry on the day, and 105 yards on 19 attempts after halftime.
The Dolphins led 16-6 at the break, but that could (and likely should) have been a 17-point margin.
First, the officials picked up a flag on a clear helmet-to-helmet hit in the end zone by Luke Kuechly against Dolphins receiver Rishard Matthews. Tannehill — who finished 28 of 42 for 310 yards, a touchdown and an interception — was so incensed that he got in an official's face and pointed to the replay on the big board.
(The refs also appeared to botch a late-hit call on Reshad Jones during the Panthers' game-winning drive. Jones barely touched Newton as he raced out of bounds, but the quarterback went sprawling like he was drilled. That gave the Panthers 15 yards.)
After the first-half no-call on Kuechly, Miami's defense allowed the Panthers to get in field-goal range in just one minute, despite having no timeouts. The biggest breakdown: a 29-yard completion to Brandon LaFell on the second-to-last play of the half, in which the entire secondary was way downfield.
The series of events gave Carolina life in the second half and reinvigorated its defense. The Dolphins managed just 119 yards and seven first downs after the break.
None of that would have mattered, however, if a single Dolphins defender made a play on fourth-and-the-ballgame.