With his team down 17-0 and his offense looking feeble and his pass defense being torched and the national pundits calling for a quarterback change, Adam Gase went to halftime and decided to keep it positive.
“Coach said this would be down to the wire,” Jarvis Landry said.
“He said let’s go out there and win the game,” Anthony Steen said.
What followed was the most improbable comeback in recent Dolphins history, considering the quality of the opponent and how tepid this offense had looked for most of the season.
A Dolphins team that mustered just three offensive touchdowns in the season’s first 18 quarters suddenly showed a pulse, scoring two in the second half despite losing concussed center Mike Pouncey.
Those TDs, coupled with two clutch Cody Parkey field goals and an exemplary defensive effort, propelled the Dolphins past the defending NFC champion Falcons, 20-17, before a shell-shocked crowd at two-month-old Mercedes Benz Stadium.
“I don’t think anyone outside this locker-room gave us a chance,” said cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, whose deflection resulted in a Reshad Jones interception – deep in Dolphins territory - that sealed the game with 39 seconds left.
“This,” right guard Jermon Bushrod said, “shows what kind of team we really are.”
Nobody could have seen this coming, not after a 17-0 first-half shellacking in which Jay Cutler threw an interception and generated a 39 passer rating and Xavien Howard allowed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Hall, who was promoted from the practice squad on Saturday.
The Dolphins became the first team since the 2004 Browns to fail to score an offensive touchdown in the first half of their first five games.
But everything changed after halftime, thanks to timely throws from Cutler, good work from his offensive line, a defense that allowed just 106 yards after halftime and bruising running from Jay Ajayi, who finished with 130 yards on 26 carries, including two 18-yard bursts on Miami’s go-ahead drive.
“Jay did a great job of hitting holes,” Gase said.
The comeback began with a 15-play, 75-yard Dolphins drive to start the third quarter, capped by Cutler maneuvering deftly out of the pocket and finding Kenny Stills in the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown, pulling the Dolphins within 17-7.
Then, after a three-and-out and a 26-yard Matt Bosher punt, the Dolphins gained possession on their own 49 and were greatly aided by two Falcons penalties: a 26-yard pass interference penalty on a deep ball to Jakeem Grant and a late hit on Cutler (negating what would have been Deion Jones’ second interception).
Given new life, Cutler found Landry for a seven-yard touchdown. And suddenly it was 17-14 Atlanta.
“I was wide open,” Landry said. “No one can guard me. Great play design from coach.”
The Dolphins defense then stopped Atlanta on the next possession, thanks in part to a Falcons holding penalty and a Cam Wake sack. And then the Falcons had a bad snap on a punt that Bosher couldn’t even get off, giving Miami the ball on its own 48.
On Miami’s ensuing drive, the Dolphins converted a 4th and 2 – on a Cutler nine-yard pass to Landry – and Parkey then nailed a 49-yard field goal to tie the game with 8:39 left.
The Dolphins then held again defensively, with William Hayes limiting a Tevin Coleman run to two yards, then dropping Coleman on another run for a loss of eight.
After a Falcons punt, Ajayi ripped off those two 18-yard runs, Cutler hit Landry for 10 yards on a third and nine, and Parkey hit the go-ahead 38-yard field goal with 2:30 to go when the drive fizzled, putting Miami ahead 20-17.
It was a second half of redemption for Cutler, who threw for just 151 yards in the game and was victimized by five more drops (three by Landry, two by Ajayi) but orchestrated four scoring drives in 28 minutes, a better day that his 76.7 rating would suggest.
“I’ve been saying Jay’s a baller,” Landry said.
Said Cutler: “We are starting to get some rhythm offensively, starting to see how it can be done.”
But another defensive stop was required, and it came after the Falcons drove from their own 13 to the Dolphins 26. Tankersley had tight coverage on tight end Austin Hooper, deflecting the pass, which Jones grabbed at the Dolphins 6.
Tankersley said the Dolphins noticed during the week that the Falcons like to run that play.
“Reshad told me before the play that I would be by myself,” Tankersley said. “I had no idea where Reshad was. I was squeezing to get my hand on it.”
Jones’ take: “Tank made a great play and I kind of cheated a little bit backside and I kept my eyes on the ball and made a great play.”
The Dolphins limited the Falcons to 17 yards rushing on seven carries in the second half and remain one of only two teams (with Buffalo) not to allow 20 points in a game this year.
“In eight years, I've never seen the camaraderie like it's been [on defense],” Jones said. “Everyone is on a string. We're doing some good things right now.”
And suddenly, the Dolphins are back over .500, at 3-2, with the Jets visiting Sunday.
“These guys have something in them where it doesn't matter what the score is,” Gase said. “They will battle. Today is the first time the offense gave the defense a little hope.”