A chilly Thursday night in Upstate New York ushered in a cold truth for the Dolphins and their regressing offense:
The blowout loss to the Titans appears less like an anomaly and more like a sign of things to come.
Playing against a usually charitable defense for the second time in less than a week, the Dolphins were lifeless offensively until the game’s final 10 minutes, falling to the Bills 19-14 and all but dooming any hopes of a playoff run.
The loss, which was equally frustrating and confounding for the Dolphins offense, was Miami’s third in a row.
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“We told our guys in the locker room, nobody really believes we can win this game,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We had opportunities, but couldn’t get it done. We have to find a way.”
The ugly truth: Dating back to halftime of the Colts game, the Dolphins (4-6) have been outscored 66-20. They went without an offensive touchdown for a stretch of more than nine quarters.
And in the first half of Thursday’s game — their only nationally televised contest of the season — Mike Sherman’s group hit rock bottom. It managed just 50 yards of total offense.
Put simply, Ryan Tannehill doesn’t look like the same quarterback who confidently directed the Dolphins in October.
When the Bills’ front seven wasn’t bringing the heat, it was deflecting Tannehill’s passes. Under duress for much of the night, Tannehill completed just 14 of 28 passes for 141 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions.
“It’s really frustrating, especially with some of success we had earlier in the year, being able to move the ball,” Tannehill said. “Being in situations where we’re going three-and-out, six-and-out, it’s tough, it’s frustrating.”
The team’s running game was no better. Four days after his infamous benching, Reggie Bush could never really stretch his legs. He had a mere 20 yards on 10 carries. As a team, the Dolphins managed just 60 yards on the ground. And the Bills were able to shut the Dolphins down mainly just their front seven, allowing their safeties to stay back in coverage.
As for the defense, it played better than it had as of late — but not good enough. Nolan Carroll racked up four first-down-generating penalties in coverage — including two pass interference calls.
Karlos Dansby and Jimmy Wilson both dropped interceptions on drives that ultimately resulted in Bills field goals.
And a run defense that for weeks was air-tight suddenly looked vulnerable. Buffalo’s C.J. Spiller went for 91 yards on 22 carries.
And for good measure, Dan Carpenter missed another long field goal, this time from 50 yards.
Yet with all that said, the Dolphins still had the ball with a chance to win late in regulation — twice.
First, Tannehill hooked up with Davone Bess for a 2-yard touchdown on a sideline pass with 8:42 left in regulation to pull the Dolphins within 19-14.
And after a defensive stop, Miami got the ball back — but needed to go the length of the field after punter Shawn Powell angled his kick out of bounds at the 1.
Jairus Byrd snuffed out that drive with a diving interception on the sidelines with just inside two minutes left.
After one final Bills three-and-out, the Dolphins had 1:24 to go 84 yards. But, again, Tannehill made the critical mistake, throwing a pick to Bryan Scott to end it.
And so the Dolphins finished the game exactly where they spent all but 90 seconds of it: trailing the Bills.
“It was not a good offensive performance,” Philbin said. “We had nothing going on. It was a huge struggle on offense. We didn’t make any plays.”
After a three-and-out on Miami’s opening possession, Bills returner Leodis McKelvin fielded the punt at the Buffalo 21, started right, then cut back left, finding a clearing on the sidelines. He turned on the burners and raced 79 yards to the end zone.
Things went from bad to worse for the Dolphins later in the quarter, as Brian Hartline fumbled a would-be first-down catch near midfield, and the Bills recovered. Buffalo turned the short field into a 32-yard field goal by Rian Lindell, and the Bills led 10-0 less than 10 minutes into the game.
In desperate need of a spark, Marcus Thigpen gave it to the Dolphins. He returned the ensuing kickoff 96 yards for a score, finding daylight after a cutback and outrunning the entire Bills coverage team to the end zone.
Lindell field goals from 34, 42 and 19 yards stretched the lead to 19-7 at halftime. Late defensive stops made that lead hold up.
“We’re not winning games,” said center Mike Pouncey. “That’s the only difference. Our attitude’s the same, we’re practicing the same. We’ve just got to figure out a way how to finish football games.”