December, as Ryan Tannehill said Sunday with a poetic flourish, is when you either stand up or fall down.
Evidently, it’s also a time when you stand up while shoving your rival’s face in the mud.
The Dolphins did both Sunday, beginning the NFL’s most honest month with their most complete performance of the season.
Miami forced three turnovers, got a 300-yard game out of Tannehill and roughed up the league’s best run defense for 125 yards in a 23-3 manhandling of the New York Jets.
And it could have been far worse. The Dolphins left at least a touchdown — if not more — on the field in the first half.
But unlike recent weeks, when they blew big halftime leads late, the Dolphins dominated the game’s final 30 minutes.
They outscored the hapless Jets 17-3 in the second half, with Tannehill stringing together enough big plays to make his defense’s smothering performance stand up.
“We haven’t been finishing this whole season,” said defensive end Olivier Vernon, who added 2.5 more sacks to his team-leading tally. “That’s one thing our coach has been stressing us to do. I feel like we got that job done today.”
And by doing so, they kept pace with the Baltimore Ravens for the sixth and final playoff spot at 6-6. Six teams entered the week tied for the sixth seed, but the Ravens and Dolphins have now separated themselves, however slightly.
The Dolphins, however, do not control their own playoff fate, even if they win out. They need at least one more loss from Baltimore, because the Ravens own the head-to-head tiebreaker.
They can, however, all but eliminate the rest of the field. The Jets’ hopes are essentially gone now, and the Steelers’ will be too if Miami can win in Pittsburgh next week.
“We want to play meaningful games late in December,” said receiver Brian Hartline. “This league’s about winning championships, but you’ve got to put yourselves in position to even contend for them. We want to stay in contention for the playoffs.”
They have. In the meantime, the Dolphins can feel good about putting together a spectacular 60 minutes against their most bitter foe.
DOMINATING THE BOXSCORE
Name a statistics, and Miami dominated it.
Yards? The Dolphins had a whopping 453-177 edge.
First downs? 25-10 Dolphins.
Turnovers? Three forced by Miami, and only one surrendered.
Time of possession? An impressive 17-minute advantage.
Nothing like a rivalry game to bring out your best.
Or, as in the case of the Jets, your worst.
Tannehill shook off an early interception to complete 28 of 43 passes for 331 yards and two touchdowns. His counterpart, Geno Smith, got pulled at halftime.
Hartline led all receivers with nine catches for 127 yards and a score. His second-half touchdown — on which he beat Antonio Cromartie on a slant and raced 31 yards to the end zone — was Miami’s first score in four quarters.
“We just wanted to be aggressive in the passing game, regardless of who covered us,” Hartline said.
ANOTHER STRONG GAME FOR WALLACE
They were. Tight end Charles Clay caught seven balls for 80 yards.
And Mike Wallace put together his second straight big game. Wallace had seven catches for 82 yards and touchdown in which he shoved Dee Milliner to the side and raced 28 yards to paradise.
Over the past two weeks, Wallace has 12 catches for 209 yards and two touchdowns. His swagger has resurfaced with his game.
“This is the time when you’ve got to be the best you can be,” Wallace said. “It’s December. I’ve had enough time to get adjusted. It’s the time for me to be the player I know I am, no matter [what]. Just block out everything and play football.”
Wallace added: “I’m a great player, I know that. It’s all that really matters. ... Let’s call a spade a spade.”
His defense played pretty great too. Vernon was a terror. Dannell Ellerbe and Brent Grimes had interceptions. Philip Wheeler recovered a fumble.
The Dolphins converted three turnovers into 10 points. They held the opposition out of the end zone for the first time all season.
And, thanks to a dominant second half, recorded their first win of the season by two or more scores.
“We kind of raised our level of play because we know what’s at stake now,” said cornerback Nolan Carroll. “We have the playoff mentality. We know every game’s important every week.
“This is just another stepping stone to propel us into the playoffs.”
Or, as Tannehill put it, it’s time to stand up.