The Miami Dolphins had excuses for losing on Sunday.
There was the days of practice that Jarvis Landry and Kenny Stills missed that forced coaches to basically shelve much of the material they wanted to put in the game plan this week.
There was that injury to offensive tackle Branden Albert in the second quarter on Sunday. There was the officiating crew that seemed determined to call a tight game in the secondary and flagged Miami defensive backs time and again, and again — turning San Diego possessions into extended drives.
And there was also this issue of the Dolphins not winning four games in a row since 2008 and not winning on the road at all this season.
There were excuses to be made for these Dolphins to tank.
Sorry. They didn’t tank.
The Dolphins beat the San Diego Chargers, 31-24, and rather than offering reasons you shouldn’t think about them as winter beckons, they are instead showing themselves to be relevant as the leaves up north start to turn.
“I don’t think this group is really worried what the score is, what part of the game it is,” coach Adam Gase said after the game. “They’re just putting their head down and just playing. We play until they tell us to stop playing. Our guys aren’t worried about what the score it. They’re in the moment and in their process. They’re trying to get the lead by the time the clock hits zero.”
Time seemingly ran out on the Dolphins win streak a couple of times Sunday.
You just knew this team was collapsing when Jakeem Grant fumbled a punt at the Miami 7-yard line and the Chargers recovered, trailing only 21-17. You knew Phillip Rivers was about to put his team ahead.
And when Rivers failed to do that on three downs but cornerback Byron Maxwell was flagged for defensive holding in the end zone, giving the Chargers a fresh set of downs at the Miami 2 yard line, you once again knew the Chargers were about to score.
Tony Lippett got the first of his two interceptions to end that threat.
Lippett, by the way, was under duress the entire day. The Chargers figured out he and Bobby McCain could be picked on because they’re second-year players trying to make a mark in the NFL but also trying to learn the positions they’re playing.
So Rivers went after Lippett and McCain time and again.
And so did the officials.
When Rivers didn’t complete his passes, he often got rewarded anyway because of penalties.
McCain had a facemask penalty, and a pass interference in the end zone, and a holding penalty. Lippett was called for holding twice. And, even veteran Byron Maxwell got in the act when he was called for holding twice.
(The binge of yellow flags on the Dolphins wasn’t limited to the defense. The Dolphins had an offensive series in which they were called for holding on three consecutive plays).
You know what the Dolphins did under the deluge of penalties?
They kept playing. No excuses.
“Somebody has to step up and and we have to continue to just talk to each other, communicate with each other and just try to make plays and be out there for each other,” Lippett said.
“We had some ups and downs, but at the end of the day, it’s all about finishing.”
Last week the Dolphins special teams delivered a finishing touchdown to win the game. This day, it was the defense that delivered the deciding blow in UFC fashion.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso, who spent his Saturday night watching Conor McGregor deliver a knockout in his title bout, followed suit with the score tied at 24 with only 1:13 to play. Alonso faked a blitz in the gap between the center and guard (A-gap) and instead rushed outside to defend the Chargers’ receiver who seemed open in the flat.
Rivers threw the ball and Alonso snatched it out of the air for his first interception of the season. He then outran San Diego receiver Tyrell Williams 60 yards to the end zone.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get there because I did know the guy chasing me was a wide receiver,” Alonso said.
Alonso finished with a Conor McGregor walk impersonation. Appropriate because the winning score this game seemed to announce the Dolphins may be around for a while this season.
Rivers, by the way, lit up Miami’s defense for 326 yards and three touchdowns. But that same defense intercepted the San Diego quarterback four times — all in the fourth quarter — and accounted for the winning score.
“This game could have went either way,” Gase said. “When you play a quarterback who has been one of the better quarterbacks in the league for a long time and he’s got the ball in his hands in a tie ballgame, the game can go either way. Our guys made one more play than they did.”
It should be noted the Miami offense made its share of plays as well.
In a game Jay Ajayi, Miami’s most accomplished offensive weapon the past month, was limited to only 79 yards on 19 carries — his first under 100 yards in three games — the passing game made up some of the deficit.
Ryan Tannehill completed 17 of 24 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns while he stayed away from turnovers. His QB rating was 130.6 which was impressive when you consider his best receivers so far this year, Stills and Landry, missed most of the week of practice.
“It was a tough week for him when two of your guys aren’t 100 percent,” Gase said. “We lost a couple of days of practice there. We didn’t go through a lot of new things we wanted to put in. We had to bag some things before the game. We made a couple of things up on the fly. And guys did a good job of executing.”
You read that last paragraph right. The Dolphins made up a couple of plays on game day. Gase came up with a motion play to Jarvis Landry before the game and drew it up in the locker room. DeVante Parker, who had his best day of the season with five catches for 105 yards, actually suggested to coaches the play in which he caught a 53-yard pass from Tannehill.
It was Parker’s idea to do a stutter move on his deep sideline route to get open. And, yes, it worked.
So it’s accurate to say the Dolphins are kind of making it up on the fly right now. They won on the road for the first time this season. They have won four games in a row for the first time since they won their last AFC East titles.
This isn’t a team making up excuses, folks. This is a team giving us reason to believe they’ll be relevant later this season.