This is part of my ongoing series where I track the coaching career of Brian Flores, as it compares to the Miami Dolphins' previous two permanent head coaches. I also recount my emotional reactions to each of the three.
This week, I look at the three coaches' 46th game, or the 14th game of their third seasons.
Recap of Game 45
Seven years ago, Joe Philbin's 7-5 Dolphins had a Wildcard in their sights. But as nearly every Philbin team did, they let a chance slip through their fingers by losing to the Ravens after a second-half beatdown. So there they sat at 7-6, but still with a reasonable chance to grab one of those Wildcard spots with three games remaining. The problem? Their next game was in New England.
Four years later, we all got to experience the Miami Miracle, the kind of wondrous desperation play that only ever seems to work in college. Somehow, someway, the Dolphins pulled off a series of last-second laterals and savvy running to stun the Patriots in Miami, get their record to 7-6, and keep their Wildcard hopes on life support for at least one more week. To keep the faint pulse going, though, they'd have to go into Minnesota and beat an equally mediocre Vikings unit.
Two games ago, we saw our Fins beat a sub-par Giants team in Miami to run their improbable win streak to 5 games and get their overall record to 6-7. It wasn't the most inspiring win, especially on offense, but it was the kind of win that was eluding the Fins during the seven-game losing streak earlier in the season. Next up was the other New York/New Jersey team, the division rival Jets.
The 2014 game in New England played out like so many matchups against Bill Belichick's Patriots in the previous 14 years. The Dolphins actually went toe to toe with the Pats for the first half, limiting their potent offense to a manageable 14 points. And the Fins nearly matched them on a Tannehill-to-Wallace 32-yard TD pass just before the half, putting the score at 14-13, Pats. Then, the oh-so-familiar tune started to play. In short, Belichick adjusted while Philbin didn't. The Pats marched out of halftime, received the kickoff, and went down the field in under four minutes for a LeGarrette Blunt running TD. Six and a half minutes later, New England added a field goal, followed two plays later by an interception of Ryan Tannehill returned to the Fins' 27 yard line. Two plays later, the Pats scored another TD. Miami then goes three-and-out and kicks a lame punt, which the Pats quickly convert into yet another touchdown. When the blood was cleaned up, the third quarter ended with 24 unanswered Patriots points, putting the total score at 38-13 and the game well out of reach (final score was 41-13). It was yet another flat, pathetic performance by a Philbin team that was trying, unsuccessfully, to prove that they belonged in the playoff discussion. The team was back to 7-7, with their playoff chances fading ever further.
Three year ago, Adam Gase's team went up to Minnesota to face a sort of NFC version of themselves in the Vikings. The game's 1st and 4th quarters ended up essentially being a pair of bookends fashioned out of your worst nightmares. While the Dolphins offense spent the first quarter having Ryan Tannehill get sacked into Silly Putty, their defense was busy allowing three quick-hitter touchdown drives to Kirk Cousins and Dalvin Cook (each of three drives took under three and a half minutes). Down 21-0, the Dolphins did actually manage to fight back, though. Minkah Fitzpatrick had a 50-yard pick-six and Jason Sanders tacked on a field goal to make the halftime score a more respectable 21-10. Then, on the very first play from scrimmage in the 3rd quarter, Kalen Ballage ripped off a 75-yard touchdown run to make the score 21-17. But that was as close as it got. After the two teams tussled a bit for the rest of the third and early minutes of the fourth, both sides of Miami melted down. The offense didn't score any more points, as the Tannehill sack total mounted at a rapid rate (NINE TIMES, when it was all over). And as Tanny was on the sidelines duct-taping his ribs together, the Vikings added a 40-yard TD pass to Aldrick Robinson and a 21-yard TD run by Dalvin Cook. Final score: 41-17, Vikings, leaving Adam Gase's Dolphins at 7-7 and their Wildcard hopes onion skin-thin.
This past Sunday, we saw Brian Flores's team come away with a 31-24 victory over our AFC East rivals the Jets. The game was far tougher than we had all hoped, though, as the Jets rushed out to a 10-0 lead in the first and held a 17-10 at halftime. But by the half, the Fins had woken up, stolen back the momentum, and held it tightly nearly the entire rest of the way. A really bad pick-6 thrown by Tua midway through the fourth kept the Jets alive longer than they should have been, but for the most part our guys dominated from the middle of the second quarter onwards. This has brought their current win streak to 6 games, gotten the squad back to 7-7 after a horrendous 7-game losing streak though September and October, and puts the team legitimately in the hunt for one of the three Wildcard spots up for grabs in an incredibly balanced AFC.
Comparative Emotional Reactions
I seem to recall my reaction to the 2014 whipping at the hands of the Patriots a mixture of disappointment and fatalism. By this point in the Philbin Era, I think most of us knew what we had with his teams. They weren't awful, or even bad per se. They were just so very, very mediocre and so very, very not playoff material, despite having some Pro Bowl-caliber players. I remember still being just willful enough to willfully ignore the many red flags while I looked at the ridiculous mathematical gymnastics needed for that team to backdoor their way into a Wildcard spot. All this, while trying not to think too hard about how that squad had done almost nothing to prove that they were a true playoff team. Subconsciously, though, I didn't have much hope for any Philbin Dolphins team.
The 2018 loss to the Vikings didn't really register with me. I had actually taken a trip up to Austin with my wife to visit an old friend, so I had no plan to watch the game (this tells you where my head was at regarding the team at that point in the 2018 season, even coming off the Miami Miracle). When we got to my friend's place, she actually had the game on TV. It was nearing the end of the first quarter, and I saw that the score was already 21-0, Vikings. That's all I needed to confirm my suspicion that Adam Gase would oversee another Dolphins meltdown. We went out to a great lunch and walking tour of Austin, and my mind was free of the frustrations of following an Adam Gase team.
After this most recent win over the Jets, our current Dolphins have me in a strange spot, but one that is fairly optimistic. I can't lie about that first quarter and change, though - I was starting to get depressed. Rust coming out of a bye week is one thing, but our Dolphins looked like straight trash for those first 18 or so minutes. Once they shook it off, though, things were looking up by halftime. By the end of the third quarter, I was feeling much, much better. There are still concerns, for sure. Tua looking shaky and being good for at least one really bad INT in most games. The team generally coming out looking so flat-footed, with so much on the line against a bad team. But when I step back a bit, it's not hard to feel better. For one thing, credit where credit is due: the Jets came out swinging. For much of the game, they played with a lot of energy, a will to win, and they were throwing every play in their book at our guys. In a division game like, that's often how upsets happen. Our guys took their best shots, got up off the mat, and came back for the win. After getting shoved around for the first quarter plus a few minutes, the defense utterly suffocated the life out of a Jets offense that was pulling out all the stops. On the other side, the offensive line actually had their best game all year, and it was against a fairly solid Jets defensive line (really the only reliably decent unit the Jets have). Then we have the emergence of Duke Johnson, and the fact that the offense put up 31 points without Jalen Waddle, their most reliable offensive player. There was definitely more to like than dislike in this game, and I'm happy about that. Do I think this team is ready to slug it out with the Chiefs? No, not if the Chiefs are at or near full strength. But the other likely AFC playoff teams? Our Dolphins aren't that far off, and they've been showing improvement in virtually every area during this six-game winning streak. If that trend continues over these final three games, then I'd put them on the same level as nearly any other AFC playoff team.
Looking Ahead to Game 47
We're entering a slightly odd territory now, thanks to the newly-minted 17-game season. A team's 15th game used to be the penultimate of a season, but now it carried just a bit less heft in the grand scheme. As such, I'll be combining Brian Flores' 47th and 48th games to compare them with Philbin's and Gase's 47th games.
Philbin's 2014 team would stay home in Miami with its 7-7 record and welcome the Minnesota Vikings, clinging to hope that they could win their final two games and have several other teams lose in order to eke into a Wildcard spot. Four years later, Adam Gase would have to keep his 7-7 team's hopes alive by going into Jacksonville and beating a then-excellent, defense-driven Jaguars team (hard to recall, I know). Our current Dolphins now sit at - stop me if you've heard this one - 7-7 and are hoping to keep their Wildcard hopes alive. This week, it'll be against a seriously flawed-but-feisty New Orleans Saints team. A victory there will up their chances, and then they'll play in Tennessee against a Titans team that will presumably still be without their military-grade Humvee, Derrick Henry, at running back.
Any recollections of these games of recent and not-so-recent past? Throw them into the comments section!