The Dolphins can’t claim they weren’t warned. Mike Wallace was their oracle.
He saw Miami’s future — Sunday’s gut-wrenching 20-16 loss to the Lions — and tried to stop it from happening.
“In the huddle, I kept telling the offense, ‘We’ve got to kill this game,’” Wallace would later say.
Less than four minutes remained, and if the Dolphins could simply have picked up three more first downs, nothing that came before would have mattered.
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Not Branden Albert’s season-ending knee injury (he was carted off after taking an ugly hit to his right leg in the second quarter).
Not Calvin Johnson’s otherworldly touchdown catch over Brent Grimes (it went for 49 yards).
And not Charles Clay’s drop in the end zone late in the fourth quarter.
Forget all of that. The game was there to be won when the Dolphins defense handed its offense the ball and a three-point lead with 3:47 to play Sunday.
In other words, they were precisely where they were a month ago, against another NFC North team, the Green Bay Packers.
Which is why Wallace had a strong feeling of deja vu. It turns out, he was right. In every way that the Dolphins (5-4) failed against the Packers, they did so again Sunday against the Lions (7-2).
The Dolphins couldn’t milk the clock, going three-and-out in a drive that took a mere 34 seconds off the clock.
And their defense surrendered the lead and the ballgame when Matthew Stafford connected with Theo Riddick for a decisive 11-yard touchdown pass with less than 30 seconds remaining.
“It hurts,” said Grimes, who had a classic battle with Johnson all game, making a highlight reel interception in the second quarter.
“A heavyweight fight,” was the description used by Earl Mitchell, who recorded the first blocked field goal of his career Sunday.
“We’re never OK with losing; we come to win, you play to win,” added quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who completed 27 of 38 passes for 201 yards, a touchdown and an interception.
Problem is, the Dolphins haven’t won one of these close games all year. They had the ball and a chance to go ahead late in Week 3 against the Chiefs, only to have the offense stall.
And they were one first down away from wrapping up a Week 6 win against the Packers, only to come up short.
That’s why Wallace was intent on making amends Sunday.
The season is now more than half over, and the Dolphins wake up Monday as the 11th seed in the AFC playoff standings — needing wins and lots of help to end their six-year playoff drought.
And they have little time to regroup. The Dolphins host the Bills — winners of three in a row against Miami — on Thursday.
Plenty needs to be fixed between now and then. A checklist:
1. Improve their red-zone offense. Miami scored just one touchdown on four trips inside Detroit’s 20, and Clay had a touchdown slip through his fingers with 4:30 remaining. (Clay said after the game: “It was a drop. There’s nothing else to say about it. You’ve got to find a way to come down with it.”)
2. Figure out how to run the ball when the read-option isn’t working. The Dolphins gained just 5 yards on two carries in their failed late-game attempt to drain the clock. A Tannehill third-down incompletion ultimately gave Detroit back the ball with 3:13 to play and one timeout.
3. Cover running backs and tight ends in end-of-game situations. Riddick slipped out of the backfield, turned around Reshad Jones and created just enough space for Stafford to rifle in the game-winner. (Stafford finished 25 of 40 for 280 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.)
“It was tough, man,” Jones later said. “They dialed up a good play. He made the play, and I didn’t.”
Stafford broke containment and kept the play alive, in part, because the Dolphins only rushed three players.
Still, it would be tough to assign too much blame to the defense, considering how little the offense did Sunday.
Miami’s only touchdown — a 3-yard hookup from Tannehill to Wallace — only happened because Dion Jordan returned Mitchell’s block to Detroit’s 3.
The Dolphins were outgained 351 to 222 on the day and averaged a paltry 3.7 yards per play. Plus they turned it over twice, including a fumble by Daniel Thomas on the first drive of the second half.
“It’s got to be in you,” Wallace said. “You’ve got to dig deep.
“We have the talent. We have the guys. We just have to want it more than they do. I think they wanted it a little more on that last drive.”