The Dolphins played in the first half Sunday like the team they want to be.
They played in the second half like the team they’ve been the last month.
Turnovers, questionable officiating and an avalanche of momentum in the second half buried the Dolphins yet again.
Ryan Tannehill turned the ball over three times after halftime — two leading to New England scores — and the Dolphins blew a two-touchdown lead to fall to the Patriots 27-17 Sunday.
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It was the Dolphins’ fourth loss in a row and their seventh consecutive at the hands of the Patriots. They’re now 3-4, fading out of the playoff picture and must play division-leading Cincinnati in three short days.
And then there’s this: The Dolphins will likely have to finish the season without receiver Brandon Gibson, who sustained what is believed to be a season-ending knee injury Sunday afternoon.
“In the second half, I feel like we let up on them,” linebacker Philip Wheeler said.
Added Dannell Ellerbe: “It kind of snowballed a little bit. ... If we don’t get wins in these next games, I feel like [the season] could slip away.”
Quipped coach Joe Philbin: “We didn’t play good football. Not good enough to win.”
They haven’t for more than a month now.
There were plenty of plot twists and turning points Sunday.
But one play more than any other crystallized the team’s decade-long futility against New England.
Down three midway through the fourth quarter, the Dolphins stripped Tom Brady deep in Miami territory — and yet logic-defying — still gave up a first down.
When Olivier Vernon lunged for the loose ball, he batted it backwards — which the officials determined was an intentional act. That’s illegal and gave the Patriots 10 yards plus a fresh set of downs.
“I was just trying to make a play,” said Vernon, who wouldn’t respond when asked whether he was attempting to recover the ball or punch it. “It don’t matter. The refs made that call. It impacted [the game] a lot.”
And almost immediately.
Four plays later, the Patriots were in the end zone (courtesy of a 3-yard touchdown run by Stevan Ridley), and the game was essentially over.
Sure, the Dolphins still had more than 7 minutes to mount a rally, but instead allowed four more sacks, turned the ball over again (a Tannehill pick) and had a field goal blocked (Caleb Sturgis’ 39-yard attempt).
Any one of those plays usually spells doom in Gillette Stadium, where the Patriots (6-2) have won 25 of their past 28 games. Combined, they made for a dreadful finish to a game that once had such promise.
The Dolphins raced to a 14-0 first-half lead on Tannehill touchdown passes to Gibson (4 yards, before his injury) and Daniel Thomas (5 yards). Tannehill finished the game with 192 yards, those two touchdowns and two interceptions on 22 of 42 passing.
With new left tackle Bryant McKinnie in the starting lineup, the Dolphins’ offensive line mauled New England’s front seven early.
Miami rushed for a season-high 156 yards (including 89 on 18 carries by Lamar Miller) on the day, and didn’t allow a sack in the first half.
The defense was also playing great, holding Brady to just 25 passing yards through two quarters.
And up 14 points early in the second half, the Dolphins had a chance to stretch the lead even more. But Tannehill was sacked on third down, and Sturgis then hit the upright on his 46-yard field goal attempt.
With that, New England exploded, scoring the game’s final 24 points.
First, Brady directed a 5-play, 64-yard drive, capped by a 14-yard touchdown pass to Aaron Dobson, who got behind Nolan Carroll on a double move.
On the Dolphins’ next possession, Logan Ryan blindsided Tannehill, forcing a fumble that Rob Ninkovich recovered at the Miami 13. Brandon Bolden scored the gift touchdown, tying the game with a 2-yard jaunt.
Stephen Gostkowski later boomed through a 48-yard field goal, giving the Patriots their first lead of the day.
Finally, New England’s defense made one of the best plays you will ever see. Tannehill went deep down the right sideline to Mike Wallace, but Devin McCourty batted the ball up before he went out of bounds. Marquice Cole corralled it, and got two feet down.
The Patriots converted the turnover into seven points — with the assist from the officials on the Vernon batted ball.
“We thought he was trying to recover it,” Philbin explained, “but they said he illegally batted it.”
Philbin had never before beaten the Patriots as a Dolphins coach, and couldn’t Sunday, despite limiting Brady to 116 passing yards.
In defeat, he joined an inauspicious fraternity.
The Dolphins have lost four or more consecutive games in five of the last 10 seasons. None of the coaches of those teams returned the following year.
Meaning: Four-game skids not only wreck seasons, but they can derail careers.