Kenny Stills knew right away he had screwed up. The Miami Dolphins needed 16 yards to pick up a critical first down in the fourth quarter against the New England Patriots. After he picked up 15, Stills slid to the ground.
The Dolphins clung to a one-point lead and their defense had no answer for the Patriots, so Stills knew the punt his gaffe led to might cost Miami. He went to the bench and prayed as the Dolphins’ lead vanished. He prayed when New England extended its lead. All he wanted was a chance for redemption.
“I felt like I let the team down,” Stills said in the home locker room after the game. “I had been just kind of sitting on the bench praying the whole time, like, Let us find a way to win this game, help me find a way to make up for that.
“And then it happens.”
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As time ran out, Stills forever stamped his Miami legacy. Stills ran a curl over the middle and Tannehill found him for 14 yards. Mayhem ensued.
Stills made a pitch to DeVante Parker, then the wide receiver made a second to Kenyan Drake. Somehow, the running back weaved his way through the Patriots for the final 50 yards to score a game-winning touchdown at Hard Rock Stadium. The ‘Miami Miracle’ gave the Dolphins an improbable 34-33 win in Miami Gardens.
No player’s game mirrored the rollercoaster more than Stills. For a half, the wideout was on his way to one of his best games of the year, with four catches for 81 yards and a touchdown. He followed it with the massive mental lapse in the fourth quarter before he finally redeemed himself, finishing with a season-high 135 yards on eight receptions, plus his key role in the biggest play of the season.
This season hasn’t been what the Dolphins (7-6) have come to expect from Stills. The 26-year-old hasn’t had a 100-yard game since Week 1. In his last five games entering Sunday, Stills only had 93 yards total.
He thrived in the first-half shootout. Miami hit right back an opening-drive touchdown by the Patriots (9-4) when Tannehill found Stills for a 7-yard touchdown. In the second quarter, Stills set up the Dolphins’ second touchdown with a 21-yard pickup before running back Brandon Bolden ran for a 54-yard touchdown. Tannehill and Stills linked up twice more on the next drive — first with a 46-yard deep ball, then again for a 10-yard gain — on the way to Bolden’s second touchdown. Miami went into halftime down 27-21 after six lead changes.
“Really, we answered,” Tannehill said after the win. “They score, we go back down and score. They score. We score. Really proud of the guys and the way that we answered. You play a good team like that, they are going to score points. Whenever they score points, we march right down the field and scored, as well.”
It all felt distant as the clock ticked away. The Dolphins’ first drive of the fourth quarter began at their own 8-yard line with a 28-27 lead. Miami moved toward midfield before a penalty halted it. The Dolphins faced a second and 16 and Tannehill again found Stills, but the wide receiver inexplicably slid after 15.
On third and 1, New England sacked the quarterback. Punter Matt Haack shanked his kick. The Patriots answered with a go-ahead field goal.
“I lost my awareness,” Stills admitted. “I thought I had the first down after making somebody miss and I didn’t realize that we were in such a—what was it, second-and-long situation?”
But when Miami needed to go 69 yards with seven seconds left, it went to Stills. He was the trigger man tasked with finding Parker and making sure the ball found eventually found its way to Drake.
In this moment, it wasn’t only elation for Stills.
“Just complete gratitude,” he said, “complete thanks.”