Sometimes exhilaration dissolves into despair in a single play, a single moment. Heartbreak is an overused term in sports, but there are times when the word seems insufficient, when the next few seconds change everything and turn a joyful, cheering stadium dejected or angry. Stunned, mostly.
The Dolphins’ postgame locker room was littered with silence and regret on Sunday.
“One stop,” muttered defensive end Cameron Wake. “One play …”
Receiver Mike Wallace shook his head before writing a two-word epitaph as accurate as it was succinct: “Blown opportunity,” he said softly.
That’s how close the Dolphins were to winning here Sunday — to a faith-affirming, second-half comeback victory — until Aaron Rodgers reminded us why he’s a superstar quarterback and the Green Bay Packers won 27-24.
If your team ends up falling short of the playoffs, you think back to days like this. To endings like this.
If a head coach sees himself losing his job, well, maybe he thinks back to days like this, too, to late-game decisions that seemed so right but turned out so wrong.
This was supposed to be an upbeat column about how Ryan Tannehill and the Dolphins don’t quit. About how Miami’s defense made Mr. Rodgers feel unwelcome in its neighborhood. It should have been that. Tannehill turned a miserable first half into a stellar second half and the Dolphins stormed to a 24-17 fourth-quarter lead.
Tannehill after halftime was 12for15 for 146 yards and two touchdowns, channeling Dan Marino. He was the story.
And then he wasn’t.
Then the story was how Miami somehow blew this game and how coach Joe Philbin — facing his longtime former team for the first time — somehow had his fingerprints on the loss.
After Green Bay had pulled within 24-20, Miami had the ball with only 4:09 to play.
“Kill time,” Wallace called that.
Kill the clock, he meant. Kill the opponent’s last chance. But that was when the Dolphins began to kill themselves.
Green Bay used its final timeout with 3:05 to play.
Miami curiously then called a second-down pass play that fell incomplete, in effect handing the Packers a free timeout.
“We were going to be aggressive and do whatever we had to do to get a first down,” explained Philbin.
Yet then, on third-and-long, Miami ran, as if remembering one play too late that it needed to run the clock on an opponent with no timeouts left.
Then, inexplicably, Miami called a timeout before punting, giving the Packers a chance to run a play before the two-minute warning. That in effect gave Green Bay another free timeout.
“We can’t give Aaron Rodgers the ball with two minutes left,” Wallace echoed the foreboding that must have been ricocheting among every Dolfan in the stadium. “We can’t put our defense in that position.”
Miami would use both its other timeouts on Green Bay’s final drive, the first before a fourth-and-10 play from the Dolphins’ 48, before an 18-yard completion to Jordy Nelson, and the other with six seconds left, before Rodgers’s game-winning TD pass to tight end Andrew Quarless.
Rodgers had perfectly executed a fake spike — now he was channeling Marino and his famous 1994 Clock Play — before the winning play to Quarless.
Philbin said that those defensive timeouts were to give his guys time to be prepared. But that also gave Rodgers and the Packers time, too.
The strategy backfired.
The thing is, Philbin gets to be the genius today if his defense make a few more plays late and covers the checks he wrote with his timeout gambles.
Plenty more than the coach’s late decisions contributed to Sunday’s defeat.
Good teams take advantage of opportunities; lesser teams waste them.
Early on Miami had a 54-yard kickoff return yet settled for a field goal.
The team had a blocked punt to put the ball on the Green Bay 16 yet got zero out of it when a fourth-and-goal gamble from the 1 fell short.
Late, the defense put Rodgers in that fourth-and-10 from the Miami 48 — “Right where we want him,” as Wake put it — but failed to make the plays it needed to down the stretch.
So good all day, Miami’s defense … except when it most needed to be.
Nothing comes easy for these Dolphins when they’re not playing sadsack Oakland, but Sunday was such a big chance to upset a quality opponent. Even with three turnovers to Green Bay’s none, somehow Miami was right there.
Instead, Miami falls to 2-3 and now faces a tough road game at Chicago.
Instead, that desperation is back as the Dolphins try to remain vital in the NFL playoff picture and Philbin (whether he knows it or not) fights for his coaching future.
The coach had called this game “a measuring stick” of sorts, but it only proved what we already knew. Miami is good enough to be a playoff team and fallible enough to disappoint and the line is so, so fine. That is why a word like heartbreak feels like it fits on a day like this, when, after a bye week to prepare, a game that should have ended in cheering ends with a gut-punch.
“We were waiting for this game for two weeks,” said Wake. “Itching for it. Hungry for it. Frustrating …”
Time and distance, so little of each, have seldom conspired so cruelly.
For the Dolphins on Sunday, six seconds and four yards changed everything.