This will be a double shot of Gameballs to celebrate our Division Championship and Home Playoff Game. But first, let me just say this: WOOOHOOO!!!! We all know the story: 1-15 to 11-5, worst to first, chumps to champs. So I won't review it again, but I will say that this has been my favorite Dolphins season in my 22 years of living, eating, breathing, and sleeping Dolphins Football. I can't remember enjoying the games more, or sleeping less, or celebrating longer before this season. Mornings are a little brighter, food tastes better, beer is colder, life is better. What a great feeling to be Division Champions once again. And it's even sweeter doing it on the last day of the season, against our most hated rival, to knock both them and the Patriots out of the postseason. It just doesn't get any better than that. It doesn't....
Until next Sunday. Because while 20 teams will be doing closing interviews and making vacation plans and offseason plans, Miami will be one of the 12 that gets to play on. But before we look forward, I'm taking a look back at yesterday's game, and all the big plays and bigtime players that made the victory happen. A few notes before we get to the extended Gameballs section:
- The Run Defense wasn't great, but it was damn good. Holding 2 of the most dynamic runners in the league to 80 total yards is no small task, especially with the OL those Jets backs have in front of them. And clearly the gameplan was to stop Thomas Jones and make Favre do all the work, because Jones gained 23 yards on 10 carries and was never a factor in the game. When you can hold the Conference leader (and Pro Bowl Starter) to 23 yards, you win that game.
- Coach Sparano, I'm in love. He's one of the most intense coaches I've seen all year, and his attention to detail has rubbed off on his players and the rest of his coaching staff. Look at some of the little things that happened during the game that we haven't seen Dolphins players do in years. Jake Long hustling downfield on David Martin's catch and diving on the ball in case it was ruled a fumble. OLinemen running downfield and helping the running backs off the ground everytime. Guys flying around on coverage teams hitting anything that moves. 3, 4, sometimes 5 guys hitting the ballcarrier before he gets to the ground. Running Backs picking up blitzes like their lives depend on it.
- More Sparano: 7 seconds left in the game, the Jets just got an illegal forward lateral penalty, and have to go about 95 yards on one play to tie the game. 99% of the coaches in this league have chucked the headset, been soaked with gatorade, and are hugging players on the sideline to celebrate impending victory. Coach Sparano, however, isn't like 99% of NFL coaches. The gatorade hits him, he has 2 seconds of "aaahhhh that's cold," doesn't miss a beat and continues yelling at players on the field to get in the right positions. He then turns around to the guys that dunked him and tells them to back up off the sideline. If he isn't Coach of the Year, I know nothing. Because that one moment displays the attitude and meticulous approach that has this team in the playoffs. Mark it down, Sparano will be GREAT. He maximizes the talent around him, and gets every last ounce of effort out of his players, and that's more than most coaches can say.
Onto the Gameballs...
10. Davone Bess - Has this kid stepped his game up or what? From an afterthought on draft day, to the number 1 receiver on a playoff team, in 8 months. Hell of a ride. And he was once again the team leader in receptions, grabbing 6 more to bring his season total to 54. He was constantly thrown the little bubble screen, which I'd actually like to see more of. Yes, his yardage wasn't all that impressive, only 39 for the game, but he was a factor. And with the ball being spread around so well, the defense had to account for him because he was able to make the first guy miss on most of his catches. That opened up other options, and allowed Pennington to have the day that he did.
9. Charlie Anderson - He's on here solely because of the blocked punt. When is the last time Miami blocked a punt? We don't block punts. It's not supposed to happen. Especially not in the 4th quarter of a 4-point game. But here comes Charlie Anderson flying through the line and laying out to tip the punt and send it off to the side. At that point, the Jets were trying to pin us deep and hold for field position, setting up for a TD later in the quarter to take the lead. But instead, we started our drive in Jets territory, picked up roughly 20 yards, and kicked a FG to make the deficit a full TD. This is just another example of different guys stepping up and making plays instead of waiting for something to happen.
8. Ronnie Brown / Ricky Williams - I've combined them into one guy, because that's essentially how they've been used all season long. And after watching these two Pound The Rock for most of the game, can you argue with the decision to split carries all year long? Here's what I noticed about Ronnie late in that game: Fresh Legs. Energy. Power. When you're starting running back is coming off knee surgery and still has all of his power and explosiveness in the final quarter of the final game, you've done a good job with him. And now, because both him and Ricky are still fresh and haven't been beaten down all season long, they can carry this Dolphins squad against some tired and beat up teams in the playoffs. The final tally: RB - 11/57. RW - 10/50. It just can't get more balanced than that, and they're both over 5 a pop.
7. Anthony "The Bull" Fasano - I've officially given him a nice, Italian nickname, the highest honor I can give. And he is definitely a bull. On one of his receptions, he cradles the ball, turns, locks onto a defender Terminator-style, and plows him into the ground. He grabbed 3 catches for 39 yards, including a beautiful twisting, one-handed while falling backwards TD catch from 20 yards out. Catching the ball after turning your back is hard enough on the playground by yourself. He does it with a defender all over him, and calmly pins the ball to his chest with his left hand while his right hand is being held by the defender. And this guy only cost us a 4th round pick? What? We got a starting LB, too? Wow. What a deal.
6. Brandon Fields - Two moments stick out in my mind. One, was on the first high snap from Denney, Fields jumped about 40ft high (give or take) and snagged it, then pumped it out of there before the rush got to him. I don't remember where it landed, but I am sure it wasn't returned. How do I know this? Because Fields punted 5 times, and NONE of them were returned. 2 touchbacks, a fair catch, one downed near the 50 (probably the first high snap) and the final one downed on the Jets 1 yard line, effectively ending the game. The second moment was on the second high snap from Denney that got away from Fields. There's a lot of punters that panic, try to pick the ball up and kick it, end up botching part of it, and the other team scoops and scores. Fields doesn't panic, knows it's a blown play, and dives on the ball to minimize the damage. That's just good coaching. And a heads-up play by Fields to not make a bad play worse.
5. Phillip Merling - Congratulations to the rookie for a couple firsts. His first career interception, and his first career touchdown. Let's recap the sequence. Two drives earlier, Merling flew upfield on a 3rd and 8, running right by Leon Washington, who took the shovel pass 8 yards for the first down, eventually leading to the first TD of the game. So when Favre again started dropping, Merling recognized it, put the brakes on (you could almost see the light bulb come on as he realized what was happening), and stepped in front of Jones on the screen pass. He was burned on a play earlier in the game, and was able to adjust and make a huge play on a similar play. Also, the way he switched the ball and threw stiff-arms was hilarious to watch. He was scoring, and he was going to make sure he looked good doing it.
4. Ted Ginn Jr. - I think I echo the sentiments of most Dolphins fans when I say FINALLY we see the deep ball potential realized. The TD catch, while not 50 or 60 yards down the field, was just a straight vertical route. Ginn just ran by his man, bodied the defender away, and made a heck of a catch in the back of the endzone, all in the span of 27 yards. That's the kind of quick strike he brings to the table. His other catch was a 44 yarder on a flea-flicker (all the tricks were out yesterday) that was thrown late. Ginn ends up having to stop and make the catch between 2 defenders, making a great adjustment on the short pass. Those were his only 2 catches of the game, but both of them were HUGE. One put points on the board, and the other set up Fasano's TD.
3. Channing Crowder - What a difference he makes in the run defense, huh? Last week, he's inactive with knee soreness. One week later, he leads the team in tackles with 9 and brings back that emotion and fire to the defensive front 7. He looked a little slow in coverage, but I think he was still playing with quite a bit of soreness. Bottom line, the man has a nose for the running back, and hits with a vengeance. He was one of the biggest reasons why Thomas Jones finished with 23 yards. He needs to be resigned this offseason, because you're not going to find too many guys that do their job better than Crowder does his. And it'll be tough to find another player that sparks his defense emotionally the same way Channing does with this Dolphins team.
2. Andre Goodman - I think it's safe to say he's our best CB right now. 2 more interceptions, upping his season total to 5 and giving him a career high for one season. The first one was just solid coverage reading the double move and not biting at all, then just running down the errant throw from Favre (one of many). The second one was a heads-up play, snatching a poorly thrown pass after Favre hurried the team to the line and tried to hit his WR on a slant before the defense set up. He missed, and Goodman, who was guarding the outside receiver, stepped in and made the catch. It stopped a long Jets' drive that was nearing the endzone to tie the game up. That ended the Jets last hurrah, and the ensuing Dolphins drive finished the game.
And the Final Regular Season #1 Gameball goes to... like you really don't know. Of course it's Chad Pennington. Coming into his old stadium, against the team that threw him in the scrap heap, facing off against his ballyhooed (I just like that word) replacement and his ex-coach, I had a feeling he would have a terrific game. And he didn't disappoint. 22/30 for 200 yards and 2 TD's doesn't do his performance justice. How about 0 interceptions, helping the Dolphins set the record for least turnovers in a season with 13? Or putting up 17 points offensively despite running just one play in the Red Area, the 20 yard TD pass to Fasano? Or completing 73.3% of his passes while his legendary opponent could only muster 50%? How about becoming only the second QB in Dolphins history to throw for 3,500 yards in a season, joining Marino? I think that there's only one number that really matters to Chad, and that number is 11. 11 wins and a division title for a QB discarded like old meat during the preseason. And with all he's done for this team, leading a scrappy group to the playoffs after a 1-15 season, having the best statistical season of his career, and finishing the year with just 7 INT's and a 97.4 QB rating, he not only deserves MVP consideration, he should win the award. There isn't a player in this league that has done more for one team than Chad has for the Dolphins. Chad Pennington = MVP. There isn't any other way around it.
No turd sandwich this week, because of the Division Championship and because of the length of the column already. Let me know what you think, and let's not celebrate too long, we have a playoff game to win. Baltimore is up next, and we have some more payback to dish out.