Everything collapsed and fell here Sunday. This Dolphins season and its playoff hopes were a stilt house supported by balsa-wood legs, and everything buckled and gave way, crashing right before our eyes in Miami’s biggest game of this NFL season and therefore its biggest loss.
The impact of this 28-13 home defeat against the Baltimore Ravens felt greater than the final margin. It felt like there could be a ripple effect.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill referred to “the opportunity we let slip.”
Defensive star Cameron Wake called the manner in which Miami lost this game “a little mind-blowing.”
Defender Jared Odrick let fly a more visceral expression of frustration aimed at coach Joe Philbin on the sideline, caught on camera shouting angrily, “Every week!”
All around, things were collapsing …
The Miami defense collapsed, impressively forcing three consecutive Ravens punts to begin the game and thereafter being helplessly gouged for length-of-the field touchdown drives of 97, 75, 80 and 81 yards.
The offense collapsed, jumping to an early 10-0 lead and then playing the final three quarters as if the end zone was a mysterious foreign land to which no transportation or map existed.
Playoff hopes were collapsing, too, of course, with the afternoon’s result. Miami entered the game in control as the No.6 AFC seed, holding the second-wild card spot. The end of the franchise’s six-year postseason drought was in the Fins’ hands. It isn’t now. At 7-6, even three consecutive wins to end the season might not be enough — and, all at once, the prospect of three wins in a row to end the season feels closer to laughable than plausible.
Here is something else that looked as if it might be collapsing: Philbin’s future as coach.
Losses like this get coaches like Philbin fired. You have to figure this loss will weigh a ton as owner Stephen Ross weighs whether to make a change. You also have to note the irony that the coach who beat Philbin on Sunday, John Harbaugh, is the brother of the coach who could end up replacing Philbin in Miami, Jim Harbaugh.
That’s getting ahead of ourselves. Philbin might still save his job if Miami wins its remaining games (at Patriots, vs. Vikings and vs. Jets) and makes the playoffs. But that notion was running away on Sunday. In a game so big, Philbin’s guys did so much wrong.
The offensive line was bad, because right tackle Dallas Thomas had a nightmare, beaten for four sacks.
The Dolphins had three illegal-man-downfield penalties.
The defense put very little pressure on Ravens QB Joe Flacco.
“There were a lot of must-win plays scattered all over the game,” as Wake put it in a postgame locker room beaten numb, “and we lost more of them than we won.”
There is something missing in this team’s DNA, lending to the idea of a franchise that has become snakebitten. The clutch gene isn’t there. Whatever is the opposite of “killer instinct” seems to bedevil the Dolphins. The previous week, Miami needed a rally to best the lowly Jets. Sunday was more indicative as we saw a team that couldn’t finish. Couldn’t close the deal.
How many times before have I tapped a postgame dirge such as this onto my laptop, describing a team good enough to tease but just not good enough to please.
How many times before have Dolphins fans felt this same relapse of disappointment and hurt and thought all over again how hard it is to have an emotional investment in this team.
On Sunday, you couldn’t help but feel for hopeful-turned-heartbroken Dolfans as they trudged defeated from the stadium while thousands of purple-clad Ravens fans stayed to cheer and serenade the home fans goodbye.
A year ago Miami was 8-6, the playoffs within grasp, needing only to win one of the final two games. Miami lost both.
On Sunday, the same thing. It’s Groundhog Day.
“The frustrating thing is, it’s not inability,” Wake said.
Then what? Coaching? Coaching tends to be the scapegoat, the catchall, for club owners at a loss for better explanations.
By my eye, the game was lost on the opening sequence of the fourth quarter. Baltimore by then held a 14-10 lead, its first of the game, forging ahead on a series that included a ballsy fourth-and-1 gamble from its own 34, converted on a sneak by Flacco.
But Miami had wrested back momentum, sacking Flacco for the first time of the game and then driving for what looked like a sure go-ahead touchdown. It was first-and-goal at the Ravens’ 4 as the fourth quarter started.
First down, Lamar Miller is buried for a 2-yard loss.
Second down, guard Shelley Smith has a false start penalty.
Second down again, Tannehill, under pressure, overthrows an open Mike Wallace in the end zone.
Third down, Tannehill is sacked in a blitz.
Now its fourth-and-16, and Miami settles for a field goal — possibly the most disappointing three points in the history of scoring.
At one point in the second half, in the midst of the Dolphins’ collective pratfall, the PA system played a jingle associated with the slapstick British comedian, Benny Hill. It was the background to a fun game on the video screen, but it also served as an unintended commentary on Miami’s performance this day.
Afterward Philbin — as he does far too often — opened his postgame remarks by complimenting and crediting the opponent with deserving to win.
“They coached better and played better than we did,” he said.
If Sunday put on order the tombstone of Philbin’s Miami career, that might be as good an epitaph as any.