Three times is no coincidence. It’s a trend.
And the trend that could ultimately derail the Dolphins’ season is their habitual no-shows in the fourth quarter against quality teams.
So the shock-value was gone in their latest failure, a 39-36 collapse Sunday against Peyton Manning's Broncos. But that doesn’t make it any less painful.
“Three points is hard to swallow,” Cameron Wake said softly late Sunday, the last to leave a solemn, losing locker room.
“It's nothing new really,” added Wake, largely neutralized Sunday by Denver’s quick-hitting and run-heavy scheme. “It's another week in the NFL. Even with the way things went, literally it still came down to one play.
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“That play could have been anywhere spread out throughout the entire game.”
Their inability to make that one play — at home against Green Bay, two weeks ago in Detroit, and now Sunday in Denver — could be their undoing.
Broncos running back C.J. Anderson ran 10 yards untouched to the end zone with 5:01 left in regulation, giving Denver its first lead of the game, and one it would not relinquish. The Broncos scored 22 fourth-quarter points to drop the Dolphins to 6-5, and significantly hurt their playoff odds.
They entered Week 12 as the AFC’s sixth seed and in control of their own destiny. They hobbled home Sunday night down two more starters — tackle Ja’Wuan James (stinger) and corner Jamar Taylor (shoulder) both left with injuries and did not return — and in 10th place in their ultra-competitive conference.
“We’re in that crunch time,” said guard Daryn Colledge. “Our next game is in December. We have five games we have to take care of in December and I think we need to win a lot of them. We’re going to need a couple of things to go our way.”
Cracking the code to the fourth quarter would be a great place to start. The Dolphins have now been outscored 82-54 in the final period, and have surrendered game-winning drives to the Packers, Lions and Broncos. (And that’s after outscoring their opposition 231-137 in quarters one through three).
Like most failures in a team sport, there is no one scapegoat. But if Wake is right and one play could have made a difference, here are a few candidates:
▪ The Dolphins led 21-10 with less than two minutes left in the first half and in firm control of the game. But on third-and-20 from the Denver 42, Broncos receiver Emmanuel Sanders got behind Taylor on a double-move and pulled in a 35-yard bomb. The Broncos were in end zone three plays later.
▪ The Dolphins’ lead was again 11 points on the last play of the third quarter, and the Broncos went for it on fourth-and-2 from the Dolphins’ 41. Anderson broke loose for 20 of his game-high 167 yards, and extended the drive. Three plays later, Manning hooked up with Demaryius Thomas for a touchdown — the third time Sunday the two connected on a score.
▪ Miami clung to a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter, and its defense had a chance to hold Denver to a field goal. Instead, Manning found Sanders for a gain of 12 on third-and-2, setting up Anderson’s go-ahead jaunt.
And still, the Dolphins had the ball with nearly four minutes left and a chance for Ryan Tannehill to play hero. That’s when the Dolphins offense — so good in the first half — made the one mistake it couldn’t afford.
Tannehill found Jarvis Landry streaking across the middle of the field. He fired, and was on-target. The pass hit Landry in the hands, but popped up and into the grasp of Broncos safety T.J. Ward.
“He just knocked my arms down,” Landry said of corner Chris Harris, who was in tight coverage. “But we’re playing in Denver. You don't expect calls like that.”
Was it pass interference?
“I'm not a ref,” replied Landry, who finished with a team-high seven catches, including two for touchdowns.
But it was a pivotal play, no?
“Of course, but that’s how the tables turn.”
Added Mike Wallace of Landry: “He’s a baller. That’s what he do. Sometimes it happens like that. He scored two touchdowns, he made a lot of big plays. No reason to feel sorry for Jarvis at all. ... We played a good football game.”
Certainly on offense.
The Dolphins dropped 36 points on a legit top-five defense and neutralized Denver’s fearsome pass rush. They racked up 25 first downs and scored touchdowns on all five of their red-zone trips.
And Tannehill completed 26 of 36 passes for 228 yards with three touchdowns.
“But we did shoot ourselves in the foot when we needed it the most,” Colledge said.
In the end, that’s all that mattered on this night — and perhaps on the year.