By midafternoon Sunday, the Dolphins found themselves in a 17-0 hole, facing the embarrassing reality of having been outscored by an absurd 84-41 margin this season and wondering if they would ever climb out of their offensive abyss.
By the time midnight struck, so much had changed: Miami (3-2) emerged from Week 6 as one of only six AFC teams with a winning record, tied for the fourth-best record in the conference and with a real chance to make this a meaningful, successful season after all.
That daunting schedule over the final 10 games, after the Jets come to town on Sunday? It’s still not easy by any means but perhaps not quite as frightening as it appeared before the season.
The 3-3 Baltimore Ravens (who host Miami on a Thursday night Oct. 26), the 2-4 Oakland Raiders and the 3-2 Denver Broncos — who all play the Dolphins over the next two months, with Oakland and Denver visiting South Florida — don’t look quite as strong as many figured they would be.
The 4-2 Patriots, while still dynamic offensively, are last in the league in total defense. Miami has two games against them, beginning the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend in New England.
Even so, Miami’s final four games are a potential landmine: New England on a Monday night, at Buffalo, at Kansas City and home to Buffalo.
But if Miami beats the Jets on Sunday, the Dolphins would be 4-2 going into the Ravens game and enter November relevant, at the very least.
And despite obvious concerns that somewhat temper enthusiasm — including an offense that ranks 32nd in the league — there are reasons for encouragement:
▪ The defense looks legitimate.
Miami is fourth in rushing yards allowed per game, sixth in rushing yards allowed per attempt, fifth in third-down efficiency on defense, third in points allowed per game and 11th in average yards allowed per game.
The Dolphins have relinquished just 10 points in the fourth quarter this season.
“That’s what they’ve been doing all year,” coach Adam Gase said of Miami’s second-half defense Sunday. “It’s been impressive to watch. Those veteran linebackers have really helped us. Those last few games, we’ve noticed a big difference.”
▪ Cody Parkey appears to be Miami’s best field-goal kicker in years.
Parkey, at 7 for 7, is one of only three kickers in the league who hasn’t missed a field goal, along with Oakland’s Giorgio Tavecchio (9 for 9) and Houston’s Kaimi Fairbaim (10 for 10).
▪ The offense showed some signs of life Sunday, scoring on all four second-half possessions.
The Dolphins are still at or near the bottom of nearly every major offensive statistic, averaging a league-worst 242 yards per game and a league-worst 12.2 points per game (61 points in five games, with seven of those points scored on a defensive touchdown).
But Sunday’s 20-point second half offered hope.
“Six chances to score points [in Falcons territory], and four of those drives, we get a touchdown or field goal,” Gase said. “We’re close. We’re close to going 6 for 8 in scoring points on drives. …
“Jay Ajayi ran through arm tackles and fought. Receivers did a great job of blocking. Tight ends were trying to finish every block. The whole group did a better job of trying to finish the plays.”
The importance of giving Jay Cutler time to throw can be summarized with these numbers: He has a dismal 49.8 passer rating this season when under pressure, according to Pro Football Focus. Against Atlanta, he had a 90 rating in his 22 drop backs without pressure.
“I thought he played well,” Gase said. “We had the fourth down that got batted down. We had a couple drops early. When you have five in a game, that’s going to hurt you again. He did a good job getting the ball out.
“Guys realized he wasn’t going to wait for them to get open. It was get your head around, the ball is coming out. He hung in the pocket, took a couple shots I would rather not see him take. Third time we’ve had a fourth-quarter comeback since he’s been here.”
Coincidentally, the Dolphins began rolling offensively after the leader of their offensive line, Mike Pouncey, left with a concussion after playing just 28 of Miami’s 67 offensive snaps.
The Dolphins said Pouncey had been their best offensive lineman this year. Jake Brendel, who played 39 snaps, thrived as Pouncey’s replacement.
“He did good,” Gase said of Brendel. “The whole offensive line did a good job.”