Dolphins-Steelers had more plot lines than Game of Thrones, but none more encouraging for Miami fans than this:
Just miles from the neighborhood where Dan Marino spent his formative years, Ryan Tannehill delivered some legacy-building late-game heroics of his own Sunday afternoon.
Playing in snow for the first time, Tannehill connected with Charles Clay on a 12-yard game-winning touchdown pass to lift the Dolphins past Pittsburgh 34-28 in a game rich with playoff implications.
At 5-8, the Steelers’ postseason hopes are in a deep freeze. The 7-6 Dolphins, meanwhile, return to Miami still tied with Baltimore for the AFC's sixth and final Wild Card spot. They have now strung together consecutive wins for the first time since their 3-0 start and have won three of their past four games.
“We've got to make plays if we're going to get where we want to go,” said Mike Wallace, playing at Heinz Field for the first time as a visitor. “[Tannehill] made a big-time play.
“The whole game, when they scored, our whole offense felt like we could score,” Wallace added. “We came out, Tannehill played a great game.”
The same could be said about the Dolphins’ offense in total.
They ran for a season-high 181 yards — including 105 on 16 carries by Daniel Thomas. They scored more than 27 points for the first time all year. They managed a fourth-quarter offensive touchdown for the first time in eight games.
And they won a true shootout against two-time Super Bowl champion in Ben Roethlisberger — a point of pride for any young quarterback. Tannehill tied his career high with three touchdown passes — including two to Clay — and completed 20 of 33 passes for 200 yards.
“I thought he played well,” said Dolphins coach Joe Philbin. “He showed some good presence in the pocket. I thought he threw the ball accurately.”
Added Tannehill: “It was a pure team effort. We really hung in there and came out with a win.”
And yet, the Dolphins were literally an inch or two away from letting it all go to waste.
The Steelers, down to their final play, nearly pulled off a miracle. A five-lateral passing play ended up with Antonio Brown racing down the left sideline with a clear path to the end zone.
But Chris Clemons got in his line of sight just enough to force Brown to scrape the boundary paint with his foot at the Dolphins’ 12-yard line. Otherwise, it would have been a touchdown and the Steelers would have been an extra point away from an unthinkable victory.
“Please step out of bounds,” Philbin recalled saying to himself when the wild, broken play was unfolding.
Tannehill's thoughts: “Is this really happening? You know, it seemed surreal for a second. I did see him step out. I was standing right there on the sideline. Thank goodness for that one inch.”
Cornerback Brent Grimes put it bluntly: “We got lucky. Sometimes it's good to be lucky.”
It's also good to have a hot quarterback during football's coldest months. Tannehill threw five touchdowns and just two interceptions during the Dolphins' two-game swing through the Northeast, earning crucial wins over the Jets and Steelers.
And while he's been far from perfect — Tannehill forced a pass to Brian Hartline into double coverage Sunday that Troy Polamalu returned 19 yards for a touchdown — he's playing the best football of his young career.
A lot of that has to do with his blossoming relationship with Clay, who had another monster game Sunday. Clay had the two touchdowns — a of 6-yarder to go along with his game-winner — and led all Dolphins with 97 yards on seven catches.
Over the past four weeks, Clay has caught 24 balls for 294 yards and three touchdowns.
“He's always a great player,” Tannehill said of Clay. “He's fun to be around. A guy who wants to be good. ... He's a heck of an athlete that makes small plays and big plays.”
The Dolphins need to make all kinds of plays over the last three weeks if they want to break their four-year playoff drought.
While the Dolphins are hot, the Ravens are even hotter. They won their third in a row Sunday, an effort that was somehow even wilder than the one in Western Pennsylvania. Baltimore beat the Vikings in a game that had five lead changes in the final 125 seconds.
That means the Ravens — and not the Dolphins — still control their own playoff fate. Even if Miami wins out, it either needs Baltimore to lose at least once or for the Bengals to lose to a team other than the Ravens.
“The ball's in our court,” said defensive end Cameron Wake. “Obviously, with the way it was the past few years, it hasn't been that way.”
Added line-mate Jared Odrick: “It's December football. All of these games are critical and crucial football games. It says a lot about your team, what kind of football you can play in December.”
That's doubly true at the quarterback position.