Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Miami Dolphins choked against Buffalo Bills

How the Dolphins began Sunday’s game was almost unimaginably bad. Who knew then they were preparing us for an ending even worse?

The harshest word in sports sure felt like it fit as the life ran out of the game clock and demoralized home fans sagged from the stadium.

The Dolphins choked.

They rallied from the season’s worst opening quarter, earned the late lead and then watched helplessly, impotently, as the Buffalo Bills went and took it.

Teams and seasons begin to unravel with results like Sunday’s 23-21 defeat.

Contenders are revealed as pretenders on days like this.

Coaches feel their job security shift under their feet in a small tremor.

Miami, after a third consecutive loss so much worse than the previous two, no longer deserves to be taken seriously as a team that will make the postseason. That honor must be earned back.

You can forgive losing to Drew Brees in New Orleans.

You can excuse losing by three points to defending champion Baltimore.

But you don’t lose at home to Buffalo. You just don’t. Not like this. Not if you want anybody to honestly believe you might not only make the playoffs but actually win in them for the first time since 2000.

Now a trip to New England looms on deck, and then comes a visit by a tough Cincinnati team. A five-game losing streak presents itself as a glum possibility.

Goodwill gone

“There are two ways we can go now,” quarterback Ryan Tannehill said afterward. “We can tank it and keep losing games, or we can turn it around.”

You want to believe in the latter, but this team sacrificed a lot of benefit of doubt Sunday. Gave up a big chunk of the goodwill and faith that had been earned in that 3-0 start that now seems so distant. The Patriots losing Sunday kept the Dolphins well in the division race despite themselves, but Miami must remind us again why this team is anything special. Must prove that anew.

The Dolphins had everything going for them Sunday — or so one might have thought. They had the desperation that consecutive losses bring. They were home. They were coming off a bye. It was their first AFC East division game. And yet Miami stunk up its own stadium early in the game and again at the end, when everything mattered.

Unfathomably, they played the first quarter as if coach Joe Philbin’s bye-week emphasis had been on ill-preparedness.

Tannehill’s first pass was not only intercepted but returned for a touchdown.

“Not the way anyone envisions starting,” he rather comically understated it.”

He would end the first quarter 2 for 9 with two interceptions and a passer rating of 2.3. I haven’t seen a number that depressingly low since my high school grade-point average.

Yet Tannehill bounced back and brought Miami back with him — throwing three touchdown passes and forging a 21-17 lead entering the fourth quarter. That’s when the choking sounds started, and a team and a season began to fray.

After Buffalo pulled within one point, Miami had to punt after Tannehill was flattened on a sack by the Bills’ Mario Williams, who blew through right tackle Tyson Clabo as if he were a turnstile.

(Miami’s porous offensive line had not allowed a sack all day to that point, picking an awful time to give up that distinction.)

The home team got the ball back with 3:39 to play, still up by one point, but Williams again roared past Clabo to plunder Tannehill in mid-throw, and the QB lost the ball at Miami’s own 34-yard line — a terrible, game-losing turnover.

It’s easy to second-guess why Miami wasn’t running the ball there to eat more clock, but it was second-and-8, a passing down, and the defense was set stop the run and invite a pass. Also, that second-guess presupposes a first down running.

Blame Clabo instead for giving up the sack and/or Tannehill for losing the ball. Blaming offensive coordinator Mike Sherman or the play-call is letting those two off the hook too easily.

Clabo takes blame

Clabo stood up and absorbed the blame. Give him that much.”

“I got beat and gave up two sacks at crucial points in the ballgame,” he put it plainly. “I got powered inside. I take full responsibility.”

If only Clabo’s performance on the field merited as much praise as his candor in the locker room.

And if only he were this team’s only problem. Turnovers handed Buffalo 17 points Sunday. Miami is not talented enough, or explosive enough, to be that mistake-prone.

Philbin, in keeping wit his stoic, even-keeled character, began his postgame comments by praising the opponent that had just beaten him, then said:

“In 17 weeks and 16 games, there are ups and downs. Teams with good character and chemistry can overcome those downs.”

Is Miami such a team?

We’ll see about that now.

Because a blown-lead home loss to a division rival for a third consecutive defeat is the kind of down that leaves you praying your team has hit bottom, at least.

“Extremely frustrating,” receiver Mike Wallace called the loss. “A division game … we needed this one to set the tone.”

They set a tone, all right. Unfortunately, that tone was about as somber as the quiet, emptying Dolphins locker room Sunday as that downpour pelted outside.

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