Greg Cote

The old Dolphins would have lost, but these new Dolphins found a way to win

Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain (28) reacts after intercepting the ball in the end zone in the fourth quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, November 6, 2016.
Miami Dolphins cornerback Bobby McCain (28) reacts after intercepting the ball in the end zone in the fourth quarter as the Miami Dolphins host the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, November 6, 2016. adiaz@miamiherald.com

This was a game the other Dolphins would have lost. They would have found a way to send their fans home shaking heads, leaving an emptying stadium to the taunting derision of celebrating New York Jets fans.

And it was happening here Sunday, right before our eyes, another victory unraveling, another season dissolving by degrees.

Punter Matt Darr muffs a good snap, hands New York the ball at the Miami 18, and a moment later a touchdown pass has the Jets ahead 23-20 with the clock bearing down on five minutes left — after the Dolphins had led almost the entire game.

A stadium filled with nearly 66,000 fans sagged, a nearly palpable “Here we go again” rising into the late-afternoon air. Jets fans, reanimated, were heckling with delight, as Jets fans do.

Then the strangest thing happened.

The Dolphins found a way. The right way. They took a loss and turned it upside down. They went and won a third consecutive game, 27-23, leveling the season record at 4-4 and allowing playoff hopes to breathe again in Miami.

Miami Dolphins' running back Kenyan Drake talks about his kick-off return for a fourth quarter touchdown to help seal their victory over the New York Jets.

“I always wanted to be the type of football team that finds a way to win,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill was saying.

Done. The previous two wins were physical spectacles over Pittsburgh and Buffalo in which Jay Ajayi topped 200 yards rushing each time and the result was convincing, never in doubt.

This was much different — better, in a way. This game was taut as guitar strings. It teetered. It required the Dolphins to find a well and summon something special from its depth.

It was one of the most resourceful victories we have seen from this franchise in a while. This team, reviving itself from a 1-4 hole, has showed impressive resilience.

“This was the recipe we’ve been talking about: complementary football,” said defensive end Cameron Wake, who had two sacks and forced two fumbles. “Playing together, hand in hand ...”

Offense, defense, special teams. All three phases of the operation stepped up hugely for Miami with timely magic, each lifting the other.

Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins running back, is excited about their win over the New York Jets and is OK with not having his third consecutive 200 yard running game.

Kenyon Drake will be the “SportsCenter” highlights star, and why not? It was his 96-yard kickoff return touchdown (the club’s first since 2012) that quickly recovered Miami’s lead after Darr’s costly muff. It came on a rekick after the Jets had been offsides.

The next kickoff would sail to either Drake or Jakeem Grant, who both were deep and waiting.

“One of us gotta make ’em pay,” Drake shouted across the field to Grant moments before that kickoff.

One of ’em did. The sprint left Drake gasping for air, then vomiting on the sideline. He’d never felt better to feel that bad.

Oddly enough, Grant earlier had a 57-yard punt-return TD negated because an illegal block by Drake. Goat turns hero.

“Those are what dreams are made of,” said Drake, the rookie third-round draft pick from Alabama, a running back by trade. “At a time like that you honestly have to think, ‘Why not me!’ 

Seems a lot of guys in Dolphins unis were thinking the same Sunday.

What about Jordan Phillips? Why not him! He’s a 6-6, 335-pound defensive tackle unaccustomed to a football in his hands. But here came Ryan Fitzpatrick’s pass, right at him. He not only caught it, he brought it back 17 yards to the Jets’ 12, leading to a Dolphins field goal.

“Wish I could have scored,” he said afterward, shaking his head.

Miami Dolphins defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh shows off a unique sense of style post Dolphins victory.

During his return, the giant man hurdled 185-pound Jets receiver Robby Anderson, who clearly wanted nothing to do with the behemoth thundering at him and all but curled into a fetal position as Phillips thundered in.

“Yeah, he went low right away,” Phillips had to admit.

But what about Bobby McCain, too? Why not him! The Jets had a first down at Miami’s 13 and seemed touchdown-bound when Miami’s cornerback made a huge interception at the back of the end zone. What was he thinking at that instant?

“ ‘Don’t drop the ball!’ ” McCain said afterward. “ ‘Keep your feet in!’ 

Later, after Drake’s heroic kickoff return, it was defensive star Ndamukong Suh who had the huge sack that forced a late Jets punt, preserving the victory.

“Suuuuhhhh!” serenaded the crowd.

“I’m glad he’s on our team,” coach Adam Gase said of Suh.

Give the offense some credit, too, though.

Ajayi’s first three carries totaled minus-8 yards. A Jets run defense ranked No. 1 in the NFL clearly was out to make a point against Mr. 200, the young man who calls himself Jay Train.

“You could tell that was their focus,” Ajayi said.

Yet he would end up with 111 yards on 24 carries despite the inauspicious start as a determined Miami refused to relinquish its new, more physical persona.

“We were being determined to make it work,” Ajayi said.

It was easy Sunday to overlook Tannehill, yet he wound up an efficient 17 for 28 with a touchdown (a career first for little-known tight end Dominique Jones) and no interceptions, and he took only one sack.

A burden has lifted from Tannehill in this three-game streak. He has a bona fide running game now. His offensive line is protecting him. His defense, better rested because of Miami’s ball possession, is making impact plays. That’s not even mentioning the gift from heaven that is a kickoff return brought all the way home.

“Finding a way,” Tannehill said. “That’s what we’re doing now.”

Three wins in a row doesn’t make the Dolphins a playoff team, but it gives them a chance to be one. That’s good enough for now.

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