The Dolphins had Sunday off, and many of them were watching, intently, as Tom Brady extracted the Patriots from fourth-quarter quicksand for the 38th time in his career.
The Dolphins gleaned plenty from New England’s 30-27 win over New Orleans — two weeks after they lost to the Saints and two weeks before they play the Patriots.
Brady confirmed he’s still the main roadblock to the rest of the teams in the AFC East, even at age 36, even with his five best 2012 receivers absent, even when half the fans at Gillette Stadium had given up on him and left. At the 1:13 mark, Brady began a 70-yard drive that culminated in a 17-yard touchdown pass to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins with five seconds left.
“I figured there was no way New England could win, but the resilience of Brady is unbelievable,” Richie Incognito said while sitting at his locker and recalling the thriller of Week 6. “It shows we’re in a really tough division and have a lot of football to play.”
The game confirmed that the NFL has become more and more like the NBA. Pell-mell action frequently comes down to a touchdown or field goal with time expiring. Eventually, they’re going to need hundredths of seconds on the clock.
“It’s designed to be a wide-open league, and you can never relax,” said wide receiver Brandon Gibson, who also marveled at Brady’s performance. “Players love it, but you’ve got to have ice water in your veins.”
Miami is 3-2 and on Sunday at Sun Life Stadium faces a 2-4 Buffalo team on the verge of placing HELP WANTED: QUARTERBACK ads. The Dolphins are presumably sitting on an ideal perch as the AFC team (with at least two wins) with the easiest remaining schedule. Miami’s upcoming opponents are currently 29-33, and the list includes only two teams with winning records — New England (5-1) and Cincinnati (4-2). There are two games each against the Bills and the Jets (3-3), one at the winless Buccaneers and one at the 1-4 Steelers.
But in the modern NFL of microwave offenses, do the Dolphins possess enough wattage to survive more frenetic scenarios like the one Brady encountered?
So much depends on how coach Joe Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman sort out the undependable offensive line, which is on pace to allow quarterback Ryan Tannehill to be sacked a league-record 77 times while the running game is on pace for a franchise-worst total of 1,114 yards (and that includes the 14-game schedules of the past).
No major changes were ordered during the bye week, according to Sherman, so tackles Jonathan Martin and Tyson Clabo will have to make miraculous upgrades to their blocking skills. Either that or Tannehill ought to lay a heavy guilt trip on them.
With no rhythm to its rushing game, Miami shovels more pressure on Tannehill to produce, make shorter drops and quicker reads. Against decent opponents, the cascade of problems that start with the offensive line can no longer be disguised — as in the 26-23 loss to the Ravens, when Miami’s offense scored one touchdown, ran for a paltry 22 yards and allowed six sacks.
That was a winnable game that also exposed the flaws of Miami’s hurry-up offense. Trailing by three with 1:42 left, Tannehill could complete only 1 of 5 passes from the shotgun formation (three were dropped). After throwing to Gibson for a 46-yard gain on fourth down that moved Miami to Baltimore’s 34-yard line, Tannehill spiked the ball at 1:01. That was followed by a sack, an incomplete pass and a wide-left 57-yard field-goal attempt.
The spike non-play was a wasted down when the Dolphins needed every yard they could get to reach makeable field-goal range. Compare that with what Brady did Sunday when he completed a pass to reserve Julian Edelman that advanced New England into New Orleans territory. He didn’t spike but followed with a 15-yard completion to Austin Collie with 44 seconds left, then reeled off a 6-yard pass to Aaron Dobson, who got out of bounds. Brady, who had no timeouts, utilized every snap.
There is only one Tom Brady, of course, and he’s mastered the last-minute drive because he has been in position to win so many times. The Dolphins showed they are capable of such grace under the gun against Atlanta but too often they misfire. Last season, they had a chance to win or send the game into overtime on half a dozen occasions but could not finish.
“Rarely do you see blowouts today, so you have to be able to score points fast,” Incognito said. “Games are won at the end of halves, and even against the Colts, the field goal we scored before halftime changed the fourth quarter.”
He has more confidence in the efficiency of the Dolphins’ two-minute drill this year because “we work on it and talk about it and rep it a lot,” he said. Philbin usually throws it into practice twice a week and on Fridays.
Incognito knows schedule projections are deceiving when any game can come down to a sprint. With playoff hopes hinging on Miami’s improvement in the coming weeks, he and his offensive linemates have the crucial job of buying time.