The fans were chanting “Let’s go Dolphins!” as one, over and over again, as the merry mob poured down the stadium concourses when it was over Sunday. It sounded like emotion that had been pent up for the past decade-plus was finally spilling out, being set free. It felt like that.
“This is just another step in the process,” Dolphins quarterback Ryan Tannehill said afterward.
No, it wasn’t, of course.
This was an enormous leap in the process, both actually and symbolically. For a young quarterback trying to prove himself as special, for a team fighting to make the NFL playoffs, and for a fandom aching so long for their Dolphins to be relevant again — this was a watershed.
The circumstances alone would have made it so: a late-season victory with the postseason in play.
But the opponent guaranteed it was a day that merited every decibel in that post-game chant.
Miami Dolphins 24, New England Patriots 20.
It was the biggest victory yet for second-year coach Joe Philbin and his second-year quarterback. That was because it put surging Miami at 8-6 and eyeing that sixth and final playoff spot the way a starving dog eyes a T-bone. But that was also because Tannehill outplayed the sensei master, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, and the Dolphins beat their AFC East nemesis for the first time in eight games.
It has been such a long time that this rivalry has seen Miami playing obedient little brother to Brady and New England coach Bill Belichick.
That doesn’t reverse itself with one win, no. But change has to start somewhere, with something. Maybe Sunday was it.
“It’s time for us to step forward to the forefront of our division,” as defensive star Cameron Wake put it.
The Patriots have dominated the division almost nonstop since their star coach/QB combo arrived in 2000. Dolfans have been waiting just as long for a post-Marino quarterback who deserves their long-term faith. It could hardly be called a coincidence Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since that wait began and since Belichick/Brady did, too.
“This feels like finally getting over the hump,” as tackle Bryant McKinnie put it.
If you don’t think Sunday was a statement game for a team that needed to make one, consider what Philbin ordered printed and set in players’ locker stalls before the game. It was a quote from Heat impresario and champion Pat Riley:
“Every now and then, somewhere, someplace, some time, you are going to have to plant your feet, stand firm and make a point about WHO YOU ARE and what you believe in.”
The Dolphins were challenged to do that Sunday, and did, overcoming 10-0 and 20-17 deficits.
And Tannehill did that in what has been a defining, faith-building December to remember for the 25-year-old quarterback.
Tannehill has directed Miami to a 3-0 record this season-saving month.
Two weeks ago he helped beat the Jets and demonstrate to all New York fans the gulf between their young passer and Miami’s.
Last week he outplayed Steelers veteran quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in snowy Pittsburgh.
Then Sunday, he out-Brady’d Tom Brady, passing for 312 yards and three touchdowns with zero interceptions, his 120.6 passer rating dwarfing Brady’s 85.7.
This is Tannehill, rising, passing tests when they matter most.
After a vintage Brady drive had given New England a 20-17 lead with four minutes left, Tannehill engineered the type of late rally that helps define quarterbacks.
The thousands of Patriots fans in the house were chanting “Dee-fense!” as Tannehill went to work. After a sack he faced third-and-16 from his own 34, the game — and season — teetering.
He hit Brian Hartline for 11 yards.
Fourth-and-5. Going for it. Everything on the line. Again.
Charles Clay for 6 yards and a first down.
Later, Rishard Matthews toes the sideline for a 24-yard catch.
Then Marcus Thigpen dashes in with a 14-yard TD pass with 1:15 to play.
“Guys around me were helping me out so much,” Tannehill said, deflecting the credit.
What ensued was what the quarterback called “the longest 75 seconds of my life” as he watched helplessly as Miami’s defense — its secondary depleted by injuries — held on against the final Brady assault.
Tannehill barely knew the name of the unlikeliest defensive hero who arose for Miami Sunday.
“I think I’d met him once,” he said, smiling.
Michael Thomas had been signed Tuesday as a hedge against others’ injuries. He took on Brady in the final minute, deflecting a pass in the end zone and then making a victory-sealing interception.
Cinderella in cleats.
“I started crying on the sideline,” Thomas admitted. “It’s crazy, what’s happened to me this week.”
Across the joyful post-game locker room, defender Jared Odrick nodded at Thomas and said, “I don’t even know his first name.” McKinnie didn’t, either. Kept calling him “Number 31.” Receiver Mike Wallace called him “Michael Jordan.”
Teams that aim to be special find creative ways to win, and sometimes find their heroes in the strangest places.
The Dolphins sell T-shirts that read, “It’s Our Time.”
It hasn’t been for the longest while.
But it was Sunday.
At halftime, Philbin challenged his players, saying: “Do we want to be a great team or an average team?!”
Sunday alone doesn’t mean this is a great team.
But maybe a third consecutive win like this one means this team — and its quarterback — are getting closer, and that they know the way.