If you don’t agree Sunday’s last-second victory for the Dolphins — this one against the dynastic New England Patriots and future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady — was a statement game, I present Exhibit A:
In the Dolphins locker room afterward there was a flyer in every player’s locker stall, printed by the team, approved by coach Joe Philbin, put there as a message of what this day and this game meant for this team.
“Every now and then, somewhere, someplace, sometime, you are going to have to plant your feet, stand firm and make a point about WHO YOU ARE and what you believe in.” — Pat Riley
And then at the bottom of the page, this message in bold and locked in capital letters:
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BEAT NEW ENGLAND.
Yeah, quoting the Heat’s president may sound cheesy to the skeptic. The highbrow crowd may scoff that drawing of lines in the Sun Life Stadium turf don’t really matter in professional football.
But to the Dolphins, this game meant something. And by something, I mean it meant everything.
It meant the Dolphins, who are striving to make the playoffs, now could consider themselves a threat to make noise if and when they get to the postseason.
It meant a Dolphins team that lost games late to Buffalo, Baltimore and Carolina can claim they faced the NFL masters of the last-minute victory and did them one better.
Oh, and this one meant these Dolphins now own a victory over the same [expletive] Patriots that have owned the AFC East and been a huge pain to them for years.
“They’ve been a pain in a lot of teams’ rears. They’re a good football team,” offensive tackle Tyson Clabo. “They’re always there in December and into January with a chance to go to the Super Bowl — because they’re a good football team. So in order to go and do what you want to do as a team, that’s one of the teams you have to be able to beat.
The nearly four-year stranglehold and seven-game win streak the Patriots held over Miami is over. The Pats may still win the AFC East, but now they hold no particular spell over these Dolphins.
“I never lost seven in a row against them,” Mike Wallace noted.
It took great effort. The Patriots, diminished by the absence of Rob Gronkowski, Vince Wilfork, Kenbrell Thompkins and Aaron Dobson, still seemed poised to hand the Dolphins another deflating, late loss.
The Dolphins, after all, scored the go-ahead touchdown with 1:15 left to play. And Brady took less time to score two touchdowns against Cleveland last week. He took less time to beat New Orleans earlier this year.
And then the Dolphins lined up with Will Davis, Jimmy Wilson, and Michael Thomas at cornerback — a rookie, a nickel defensive back, and a guy who joined the team on Tuesday after getting plucked off the San Francisco practice squad — because starters Nolan Carroll and Brent Grimes were out of the game injured.
Things looked bleak.
Watching Brady move his offense from his own 20-yard line to the Miami 14 was gut-wrenching for fans at Sun Life that stood throughout the drive, fans watching at home, and Dolphins offensive players who fretted they had scored too early.
“Honestly, I might die two years earlier. That took about two years off my life,” Wallace said. “I was so nervous right there. I had confidence in our defense but, still, that guy with the ball you still have to be nervous.”
Unfortunately for Brady, he forgot to pack his last-second heroics this trip to South Florida. Thomas, so new he didn’t even know the signals the defense was using, made two fine plays.
And the greatest of those two was an interception that sealed the victory and left Thomas sobbing.
“Oh my God, who wouldn’t be?” Thomas said later. “I knew Tom Brady was going to come after me. Tom Brady is a great quarterback. He’s going to exploit any team’s weakness. If he sees a new guy comes in, he’s going to see where they’re at.
“I’m going to remember this one for the rest of my life.”
After the game, everyone congratulated Thomas even though many of the players and perhaps even Philbin — who referred to him as “a player in there” — didn’t seem to know Thomas by name.
Wallace jokingly called him Michael Jordan.
“I didn’t know his first name,” Jared Odrick admitted.
“I told other reporters, ‘Yeah, ah, Thomas did really good today.’ But I went right to him after the game and told him what he did was perfect. It was beautiful.”
Thomas was not alone in saving the Dolphins.
Charles Clay caught a key fourth-down pass that extended the offense’s drive to the go-ahead touchdown. The pass, behind Clay, was his only catch.
Undrafted free agent guard Sam Brenner started for the first time in two weeks. Carroll, who sustained a knee injury before halftime, actually went into the game, injury and all, for a series when Grimes got hurt.
Ryan Tannehill, who has put this team on his back in December, continued to author success, throwing for 312 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. So yes, he outdueled Brady.
And there was another clear sign the Dolphins made a statement Sunday. Afterward, Brady did his usual news conference, but unlike so many others that allowed him to discuss how he dispatched the Dolphins, this one was bathed in frustration.
Brady took two questions. He cursed while answering the second question. And then he abruptly just stopped talking and left.