The Miami Dolphins (8-7) kept their hopes of their first winning season since 2008 alive against the Minnesota Vikings (6-9) on Sunday in a game that came down to an exciting fourth quarter in which 41 combined points were scored.
Here are my five thoughts, plus quick hits & quotes, on Sunday's entertaining game between the Dolphins and Vikings:
1. Wild shootout
Offense won the day on Sunday as 72 points were scored. Ryan Tannehill led his offense admirably while throwing for 396 yards and four touchdowns. Rookie Teddy Bridgewater was impressive behind his balanced offensive attack and accumulated a 114.1 passer rating.
The Dolphins were down 14 points in the early portions of this game but battled back offensively and eventually took the lead 21-17 on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Vikings put up a field goal on their next possession and the Dolphins responded with a touchdown.
The Dolphins finally seemed to be in control of this game after sleepwalking through the early portion, but then the unthinkable happened.
The Vikings scored a touchdown to follow up Miami's touchdown to make it 28-26. Minnesota then successfully tried the two-point conversion to tie it up. Dolphins DE Olivier Vernon drew an unsportsmanlike conduct on the play to push the Vikings' kickoff up 15 yards.
On the ensuing kickoff, one which was excellently executed, the Vikings popped a high ball to Jarvis Landry and after trying to make a cut at the 8-yard line, Landry fell and fumbled. The Vikings coverage unit was right there to recover. It was Landry's worst moment as a Dolphin.
The Vikings scored a touchdown on the ensuing play and suddenly the score was 35-28 and the Dolphins had lost all control over this game.
But Tannehill and the offense didn't panic. Tannehill opened the drive with 22 and 11-yard completions to Charles Clay and Jarvis Landry. Six plays later the Dolphins were in the redzone with two minutes left in the game.
After taking a sack on first down for a loss of 13 yards, his worst play of the day, Tannehill hit Wallace for 14 yards to earn back the loss. Then, after a false start pushed them back, Tannehill threw a long fade route to Mike Wallace. The pass wasn't particularly good, but Wallace was able to draw a pass interference and a first down. The Dolphins scored a touchdown on the ensuing play to tie it up. The clutch 11-play drive ate up 3:24 from the clock and put the Dolphins in position for a wild finish.
2. Clutch defense from Dolphins despite defensive breakdowns
It was an awesome game to watch, ending 37-35, but then the Dolphins' defensive ineptitude hits you when you realize the Dolphins were facing the league's 20th ranked scoring offense. The Vikings average only 20.8 points per game this season, but were able to put up 35 on Miami.
This is due to a formula put out by the Denver Broncos on how to beat the Dolphins (and favorable field position for the Vikings for most of the game).
The formula includes a heavy dose of the run against Miami's smaller front seven, then taking advantage of the 7-yard cushion that Dolphins cornerbacks play with on short down-and-distances/ favorable passing situations.
Despite giving up 35 points, the Dolphins defense came up big on the Vikings last series.
The Vikings, after scoring on three straight possessions, had the ball with just over a minute left in a tie ball game. Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater had been lighting it up to that point, throwing only six incompletions.
But on this final series, a series that the defense absolutely could not lose, the Dolphins defense stepped up. We've seen Miami's defense fall short in this situation two times this year, but Miami's defense finished emphatically. After forcing a 3rd and 8 situation, Dolphins defensive end Cameron Wake, who's been having an inconsistent year, made his presence felt. Wake flew around the right edge of the Vikings line and wrapped up Bridgewater for a four yard loss, which set up...
3. A walk off safety for the second year in a row
Last year Cameron Wake sacked Cincinnati Bengals QB Andy Dalton in the endzone to get the walk off safety in overtime of a Thursday night game. Sunday, he merely set up the play by pushing the punt team four yards back, putting the punters feet in the endzone.
A bad long snapper/punter exchange on Minnesota's part allowed rookie defensive end Terrence Fede enough time to get into the backfield and block the punt, sending it back into the stands for a safety.
It wasn't quite a walk off because an onside kick ensued, but the safety broke the tie and allowed the Dolphins to leave victorious without extra time needed (though I was confident that Ryan Tannehill would lead Miami's offense down for a game-winning field goal).
Why do I say that? Because this team was could've easily quit two times in this meaningless game. Once after the Vikings got down to the 1-yard line before halftime and another after Landry fumbled a kickoff in the fourth quarter and the Vikings got the ball inside Miami's 10-yard line.
The Dolphins produced a goal line stand that forced the Vikings to settle for a field goal before half. And although the Dolphins defense allowed a touchdown following that Landry fumble, which was the second Vikings touchdown in under 30 seconds, the Dolphins offense responded with a game-tying touchdown.
The Dolphins could've easily defaulted to the "Same old Dolphins" script that has followed this Dolphin team for a decade when pressed into these tough spots. But the Dolphins rose to the circumstance that they had put themselves in and overcame it. In a meaningless game, they showed the grit, determination and heart to stay focused and pull out the victory, just for the sake of victory.
5. Perspective on the future
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross's announcement that HC Joe Philbin will be returning next season changes everything. No more speculation, no more rumors, no more waiting for something to happen.
Joe Philbin will be the Miami Dolphins head coach next season.
While I still question if the Dolphins have a winning culture under Philbin, I am oddly relieved by the announcement. Now there will be no unanswered questions. No what-could've-been's. We will get a definitive answer on who and what Joe Philbin is as a head coach. We will see how far he can really bring a football team. Joe Philbin will be back next year, but from this moment on the mantra of "2015 playoffs or bust" is in effect.
QUICK HITS & QUOTES
- The Dolphins offense accumulated 36 first downs, the most first downs Miami has earned in a single game this season by a hefty margin.
- Damien Williams, and undrafted rookie, caught the game-tying touchdown and converted a third down on that same drive. Despite having a costless drop of a touchdown pass last week, Williams has proved himself valuable to this team.
- Brent Grimes was uncharacteristically torched on Sunday. Grimes allowed two touchdowns and was beat badly on both routes.
- Dion Sims continues to emerge at tight end. Sims scored the Dolphins only first half touchdown after shaking the safety that was covering him out of his shoes.
- Mike Wallace continues to make "wow" plays this season and further confuse those in a love-hate relationship with the receiver. Wallace contested for a ball on a comeback, then caught the ball off the tip and dove into the endzone for a third quarter touchdown.
- Half of the Vikings third downs were three yards or less.
- The Dolphins still didn't put together 60 minutes of solid football. But they played their best half in the second. Playing well in crunch time will lead to victories.
- "We told the guys at halftime. I thought our coaches did a good job of making some adjustments. Nothing major. We didn’t invent any really news plays or anything like that. The guys kept their poise. I told the team at halftime we’ve been in this situation before. We’ve been down at half ten points here on this field and have been able to come back. We’ve just got to play one play at a time, one possession at a time." - Joe Philbin.
- "The way we’ve played in the second half the last couple of weeks…as I mentioned today the theme with the team the whole week was play sixty minutes. Play sixty minutes. Every time I walked over to the bench it’s all they ever heard from me. Just keep playing. Again, we made some mistakes, but the guys made enough plays when it counted and we came back from ten down, and went up ahead by eight, then gave up eight points, and found a way to tie it back up and all that stuff. I thought they showed some resilience."- Joe Philbin.
- "Obviously we don’t want to be in a hole and have to fight our way out but the way it happened shows character. Regardless of what is in front of us, everyone stepped up. When plays needed to be made, it happened. I’m proud of all the guys and it feels good."- Cam Wake.
- "It was a bad snap, and I saw the ball on the ground, so I was like, forget the hold up, I’m going to go try and block the kick. And that’s what happened, I was able to go and block the kick. It felt amazing. It’s something that I haven’t felt in a while. You know I haven’t been making enough plays that I wanted to make, but that’s just the beginning of everything."- Terrence Fede.
- "It feels good especially for a guy like Fede, a young guy who’s just trying to make plays. He does a lot for this team that people don’t see. Every day of practice, he’s playing every single special teams, every single defensive snap on scout team, then he’s taking defensive reps. He’s suiting up as an offensive blocker. He does a lot for this team. It was really nice and special to see him win the game for us." - Jared Odrick.
- "I was thrilled for Coach (Philbin). I’ve stated to you guys from the very get-go that I think Coach Philbin has been building something special here. Obviously we wish it would have translated into some more wins here sooner than it has, but there is no doubt in my mind he has built a great foundation as has the entire staff here together. I think the future is bright, and I think the organization will see that as we move forward. I’m thrilled for coach and for the staff." - Kevin Coyle.
- "Like I said, as I’ve said many times as I tell our staff, and I believe this, I believed this for 30 years that players deserve a coach that believes in them. That belief I think allows players to hopefully reach their potential. It’s important for a head coach of a NFL football team that the owner believes in him, what he is doing and the program he is instilling. It’s very important. If you don’t have that type of belief and faith from the owner, it’s not going to work. I know if players don’t believe in their coaches and coaches don’t believe in their players, you have no chance. It’s important." - Joe Philbin
- "Some endings get crazy and that was one of them. That’s what football is. It’s not supposed to make sense and when it doesn’t make sense in our favor, it feels that much better. It’s a great thrill and definitely a great win." - Jared Odrick.