D There was a time a three-point loss to Peyton Manning and his defending conference championship team would suggest progress for the Dolphins, and there was a momentary temptation after this loss to think things are not too bad because the offense is making strides, and Miami is by no means out of the playoff picture.
But stop to consider what this 39-36 loss means.
Yes, it suggests quarterback Ryan Tannehill is steadily moving in the right direction.
Yes, it suggests the Dolphins can play close with a very good team — even on the road
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But this game also showed Miami’s defense isn’t what players think it is and fans hope it is. This defense was carved up like a well-seasoned turkey four days before Thanksgiving.
And all we can be thankful for is that this defense doesn’t face elite competition every week because that hasn’t worked out too well for this unit this year.
“When you want to be considered one of the top defenses, you step up in games like this,” defensive tackle Earl Mitchell said. “I don’t think our goals are diminished at all, but we do have to figure out what we got to fix.”
The Dolphins have plenty to fix, but we might not know if the solution has been found when they play teams such as the last-place New York Jets or Minnesota Vikings in the coming weeks. The Dolphins have and will likely continue to handle teams like that — ones that lack good quarterbacks or great plans or both.
That’s not the problem.
The problem is this defense kind of yields when it plays great quarterbacks. Or when it plays good quarterbacks on the road. Or when the situation calls for heroics.
This defense gave up that game-winning, last-second touchdown to Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay. Fine, that happens.
This defense gave up the last-minute game winning drive to Matthew Stafford and Detroit. Ouch.
Well, what about the good outing in the second half against the Patriots, you ask?
The excitement from that one faded two weeks later when the defense couldn’t make a fourth-quarter stand against Kansas City, letting a 21-15 third-quarter deficit turn into 34-15 loss.
Also, the Patriots offense has seemingly grown since the Dolphins handled it in the season opener, so do not make the mistake of thinking a replay is certain.
On Sunday, this defense couldn’t find a way to stop Manning, either. It couldn’t even find a way to stop the third-string running back Manning was handing off to most of this day, which is why C.J. Anderson rushed 27 times for 167 yards, and the Broncos finished with 201 rushing yards.
Look, Manning throwing four touchdown passes is not a shock. That has been happening to good defenses for years.
But to yield 201 rushing yards against a team averaging only 89.9 rushing yards per game? Against the 27th-ranked rush offense? Against an offensive line that was terrible last week against St. Louis?
How could that happen, gentlemen?
“They weren’t tricking us at all,” defensive tackle Jared Odrick said.
Said safety Reshad Jones: “We did miss a lot of tackles”
And then the killer:
“We just didn’t show up,” defensive end Olivier Vernon said. “The defense could have done a better job. It’s on us as players.”
He’s right. Defensive players coach Joe Philbin can normally count on simply did not perform.
Neither Vernon nor Cameron Wake could get to Manning. They didn’t sniff a sack or even a hurry.
Jimmy Wilson, one of the better nickel players in recent Dolphins history, contributed mostly penalties. He was called for three of them, all leading to automatic first downs.
Brent Grimes, playing at a Pro Bowl level throughout the season, gave up a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Oh, about that fourth quarter …
The Dolphins led 28-17 to start the final period.
Then Manning threw two touchdown passes and completed a two-point conversion, and Anderson sliced through the defense 10 yards for another touchdown. The Broncos gained 10 first downs, erased the 11-point deficit with apparent ease, and then sealed the game with a 26-yard run by Anderson with 1:30 to play.
The collapse by Miami’s defense was epic in that the last time the Dolphins held an 11-point lead to begin the fourth quarter and lost was in October of 2000 when the Jets came back against them in the classic Monday Night Miracle (not for Miami) game that ended early Tuesday morning.
“We took an L today. We’re not happy about it,” Grimes said. “We didn’t play our best game. When you’re playing a team like the Broncos who went to the Super Bowl last year and are a contender again this year, you have to play your best game. We didn’t do it.”
The question is does this defense have such a game in it? Can it deliver greatness in New England in a couple of weeks? Can it stop Joe Flacco and Baltimore later on?
This defense was built ostensibly to carry this team. But it couldn’t even hold up it end of the bargain on a day the offense played well enough to win.
So is this what it is against elite competition?
It has looked that way too many times this season.