This is how legends are made.
Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard, playing on the national stage Monday night, twice picked off arguably the greatest quarterback — if not player — in NFL history, keying Miami’s stunning win over Tom Brady and the Patriots.
And in the moment, he has rarely felt worse.
A horrendous stomach bug hit Howard on Monday morning, and he spent all day — and night — puking. He even threw up on the sidelines in between defensive series.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
“It was rough,” said Dolphins defensive back Walt Aikens, who shares locker room space with Howard. “He was throwing up his guts, I thought he was going to die.
“It was kind of scary,” Aikens continued. “I was in the splash zone, came out. He balled out though. Next time he gets sick, I’ll know not to care about him, because he’ll be all right for the game.”
Howard, the AFC’s defensive player of the week, had little time to speak with reporters Friday. He had to dash off to a doctor’s appointment. While slowly on the mend, Howard still felt like garbage — he had a pretty heavy sweat going on during the brief Q&A — but insists he will play Sunday against the Bills.
He better. Howard has quickly become one of the Dolphins’ best players — and an irreplaceable part of defensive coordinator Matt Burke’s game plan.
Despite Howard’s up-and-down second NFL season, the Dolphins coaching staff has repeatedly given him one of the hardest assignments in pro sports: Shadow the opposing team’s best receiver.
Howard held Falcons star Julio Jones without a touchdown in Miami’s Week 6 win against Atlanta.
And he absolutely tied up Patriots speedster Brandin Cooks, who caught a season-low one pass on Monday.
Who will Howard chase around snowy Western New York on Sunday? Hard to tell, but Kelvin Benjamin seems like as good a guess as any.
Burke said he feels confident assigning Howard shadow coverage on any receiver in football.
“We’ve done that all season,” Burke said. “He’s obviously made a bunch of pretty spectacular plays the last couple of weeks. We’ve had that confidence in ‘X’ all year and again, obviously some of the results are starting to show.”
Four interceptions in two games? They sure are.
But that only begins to explain how well he has played. Howard has allowed just two completions in 17 pass attempts in his coverage area over that stretch, according to Pro Football Focus, and the passer rating against him is 0.0.
That’s not Pro Bowl stuff. That’s All-Pro stuff.
Yet barring a big surprise, Howard won’t be invited to Orlando in January. Why? The 11 games that preceded this run were average, at best.
On the season, Pro Football Focus rates him in the bottom quarter of NFL cornerbacks, and the biggest reason why: 10 penalties, third-most in the league for his position. But he seems to have straightened that out by locating the ball better than in weeks past.
“I tried to tell you guys. Nobody wants to listen to me,” said Burke, who has talked up Howard all season. “... I think it’s just the experience is catching up to the talent.”
His teammates have noticed. Ndamukong Suh said Howard is “playing at an elite level, and hopefully he continues that way and people stop throwing the ball his way.”
Added Dolphins corner Alterraun Verner: “What he’s doing is no shock to anybody that’s in this locker room. It just hasn’t translated for one reason or another. Opportunities haven’t presented themselves or things like that. He’s been seizing the opportunity the past couple of games and his talent has just been showing.”
While Howard’s coaches and teammates have raved about him during this dominant stretch, he has kept in character: Quiet and unassuming.
When asked how he was able to put together what at least three Dolphins players on Friday called his “Flu Game” — a reference to Michael Jordan’s iconic Game 5 of the 1997 NBA Finals — he shrugged and said, “Got some IV.”
So was Monday your coming out party?
“I wouldn’t say that. I’m just growing and getting better. That’s really what I preach. Just sticking to the game plan that we’ve got going and just grow and gain confidence as I go.”