It was yet another tough, heart-stopping football game for the Dolphins. It took all 60 minutes to decide. Dolphin fans everywhere were definitely on the edge of their seats. Hearts pounded. Stomachs ached. Throats were sore from screaming.
Ah yes - this is what it feels like to play meaningful December football. And despite all the pain and suffering that we all might have felt as this game played out, I wouldn't have it any other way.
As this team has done time and time again, the Dolphins made just enough plays and defeated the 49ers to win for the 7th time in 8 games. That's right - the Miami Dolphins, who won just one game last season, are 7-1 in their last 8 and are officially one of the hottest - if not the hottest - team in the NFL.
WINNING WHEN THE NUMBERS SAY OTHERWISE
"All wins ain't cute, but a 'W' is always pretty." That's what Jason Ferguson said following the Dolphins's win over SF on Sunday.
And if you were to just simply look at the numbers from Sunday's game, you would think that the scoreboard was incorrect. Consider these figures:
The 49ers ran 79 offensive plays, 37 more than the Dolphins. They out-gained the Dolphins by 70 yards. They picked up 24 total first downs, 13 more than the Dolphins. They were 8/17 on 3rd down. They had 13 plays of 10 or more yards. The Dolphins committed 8 penalties to SF's 4. And the Niners held the ball for 17 more minutes than Miami.
And yet the Dolphins found a way to win this game - a game that had the feeling of a playoff game. It was intense. It was physical. The crowd was loud all game. And when it mattered most, the Dolphins were the players making plays. That is playoff football, indeed. And just as it is in the playoffs, it doesn't matter how you get the win. Like Ferguson said, a win is always pretty.
DEFENSE STEPS UP WHEN IT HAS TO
Yes, the 49ers gained 318 yards of offense and converted nearly 50% of their third downs. Yes, they had 13 plays of over 10 yards. But they only had 9 points. When you're talking defense, it's that points total that matters. Nothing else.
Sure, between the 20s, this Dolphins' defense didn't look very sharp. But don't that let deceive you. The Fins again employed the "bend but don't break" theory of defense and kept the 49ers out of the endzone. And as you all know, that's now 3 full games (12 quarters) that the Dolphins haven't allowed a touchdown - the first time the Dolphins have accomplished such a feat since 1973.
And from my perspective, it all started with the pass rush. Using a combination of blitzes, the Dolphins picked up 5 sacks and many more QB hurries. It seemed like Shaun Hill was under pressure. And if not for Hill's impressive pocket awareness and mobility, he likely would have been sacked at least 3 or 4 more times.
It was also the pass rush that stepped up in key moments to make plays. I think back to two, in particular. The first was the Niners' final possession of the 1st half. They had the ball 1st & 10 at Miami's 28 yard line before a sack by Charlie Anderson, a 5 yard penalty, and a sack by Nathan Jones knocked SF out of FG range and forced them to punt. Great defensive calls by Paul Pasqualoni and great execution on the field.
The other moment I think to, of course, is Joey Porter's game-ending sack of Shaun Hill. Porter was held in check for most of the game. But when the game was on the line on 4th & 10 at Miami's 21 - with Miami's playoff hopes on the line - it was Porter, the leader of this defense, who made the game's biggest play. He blew right by the right tackle after simply getting leverage on him and ended this heart-pounding game.
The best part of Porter's game-sealing play? He called it. According to Tony Sparano's post-game press conference, Porter actually told Sparano at halftime that he would make some kind of game-changing play. He said to Sparano, "I'm a closer." Indeed he is. And after that play, Joey can celebrate any way he chooses. He chose to rip off his helmet on the field and throw it. I'm cool with that. And if he had decided to rip off somebody's head and throw it, I would have been cool with that, too.
-I always heard that a good way to criticize somebody or something is to first give a compliment and then say the complaint. So, first, my compliment. Nice job by Dan Henning on coming up with some creative offensive formations. Splitting out David Martin as a wide receiver worked out well. And I really like the idea of putting Ronnie Brown in motion, splitting him out wide. It usually got him lined up with either a linebacker of a safety - a big mismatch. I hope to see more of that in the coming weeks.
-And now for my criticism. The Dolphins need to run the ball more. Ronnie Brown had just 3 carries in the first half - which is really unacceptable. And 11 total touches in the entire game for Brown is just wrong. It should be illegal. I hate to criticize after a win, but it has to be done. Ronnie needs the ball more.
-What a tale of two halves for Chad Pennington. In the first half, Pennington was 8/11 for 131 yards and 2 touchdowns. In the second half, Chad was 4/8 for 25 yards. But hey, like all of you, I still love him.
-Let's hear it for these tight ends! Five of Chad's 12 completions were to his tight ends. David Martin's catch was just spectacular. Where was that last year? And congrats to Joey Haynos on his first career catch - which was for a TD. And don't be surprised to see him more involved. He's a 6'7 monster and could really become a force in the redzone.
-On the flip side, the lack of production from the receivers on Sunday is a slight cause for concern. Let's just hope for better production next week.
-Both Jason Ferguson and Kendall Langford played damn well on Sunday. The Niners were very physical at the point of attack, but both Ferguson and Langford did a good job standing their ground.
-Please lock up Yeremiah Bell with a new contract.
-Brandon Fields is slowly becoming a very good punter. A lot of Miami's success on Sunday is thanks to Fields' ability to pin the Niners deep and not let the ball get into the endzone for the touchback.
-Did you know that Chad Pennington broke a Dam Marino record on Sunday? His run of 17 consecutive completions, dating back to last week's game, broke Dan's previous record of 15.
-Yes, I praised the defense. But they have got to do a better job of getting off the field and not allowing drives of 16, 16, and 13 - eating up 22 minutes of the clock.
-No turnovers yet again. Only 10 this season. The NFL record is 14.
Despite the negatives, "Mission 3W" has officially become "Mission 2W." Like all of you, I'm not sure my heart can take any more of this. But I'll gladly take another month or so of games like this.
Next up is Kansas City - another game that won't be as easy as some probably want to think it will be.
Let "Mission 2W" begin!