Greg Cote

Greg Cote: Dolphins keep playoff hopes alive with must-win victory

Miami Dolphins strong safety Jimmy Wilson reacts after the Dolphins stopped the Buffalo Bills on a fourth down in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014.
Miami Dolphins strong safety Jimmy Wilson reacts after the Dolphins stopped the Buffalo Bills on a fourth down in the fourth quarter at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens on Thursday, Nov. 13, 2014. Miami Herald Staff

One way or another, as midnight approached here Thursday night, there was going to be a sound describing this Dolphins season. It would sound like a clock striking ominously on the team’s realistic playoff hopes, a death knell of sorts. Or it would be a joyful sound, like bells pealing, announcing new life.

Dolphins 22, Buffalo Bills 9.

This didn’t save the season, exactly, too much of it is left. What it did was rescue the hope for where that season might be headed.

It was a game Miami had to have, a must-win in all but the literal sense.

A loss would have meant we could all dispense with the pretending and the playoff permutations. It would have meant Dolfans could dispense with their realistic belief that this year might be different. It would have left this franchise and its beleaguered fans thrown well off postseason pace and relying on a football miracle. It also would have renewed dark speculation about the future of coach Joe Philbin.

Now, hope lives to see another game.

This team has broken hearts with a couple of its losses, losing on the last play to Green Bay and falling in the last minute to Detroit, both good teams.

This would have been worse.

For the timing and the stakes, this would have hurt the most.

You do not lose at home to the AFC East rival that had beaten you three times in a row, and whose cornerback Leodis McKelvin had guaranteed another Bills win Thursday — “point-blank, period,” he had said for emphasis.

(McKelvin happened to depart the game in the second quarter and not return, sidelined by a loose tongue. Kidding. It was an ankle injury.)

No, you do not lose at home in a division game when a loss would have left you 5-5 and staring at a losing record with a visit on deck to Denver, where Peyton Manning and the Super Bowl favorites await.

Now, at 6-4, even if you presume a loss in Denver, that would leave five games after that, from which four victories would assure a playoff spot and three would make it likely.

The whole outlook brightened in the dark Thursday as Miami, donned in its rarely worn all-aqua uniforms, wrestled a game that seemed headed for defeat and turned it around. The Fins rallied from a 9-3 hole in the second half, on Ryan Tannehill touchdown passes of 7 yards to Brandon Gibson and 8 yards to Jarvis Landry sandwiching a safety.

It was in many ways an unexciting and unimpressive performance by Miami — at least in the first half, when offensive stalls in the red zone continued.

But it was also this: A huge, and important victory — style points unneeded.

The second half roared, with Miami’s defense utterly dominating the Bills, and McKelvin’s pregame guarantee reduced to so much nonsense.

Tannehill also shone, finishing 26 of 34 for 240 yards, those two TD passes and an excellent 114.8 passer rating. (Miami is 16-1 in Tannehill’s young career when his rating tops 90.)

This is a formula you can win with: Really good defense and a plenty-good-enough Tannehill.

It might not be a championship formula. But, Thursday night, it felt like a playoff formula.

The nationally televised prime-time game staked a proper start to one of the biggest, loudest, most jammed sports weekends in South Florida sports history — one getting its launch on a big stage and before more than 71,000 fans.

It was a heck of an appetizer to Saturday night’s Hurricanes game vs. Florida State and then Sunday’s NASCAR season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, our weekend’s two other signature events.

There’s more. On Friday, UM christens its basketball season, and the Panthers are on home ice against the New York Islanders. And on Sunday the Heat host Milwaukee.

The long weekend might have started by casting a pall across South Florida had the Dolphins let such an important game drop.

Instead, it was those bells pealing and fans cheering as they spilled from the stadium as midnight neared, chanting, “Let’s go Dolphins!”

It was what renewed hope sounds like.

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