First of all, anyone who didn’t enjoy watching New England’s Bill Belichick finally having to coach without a quarterback — somewhere Joe Philbin stopped cleaning a locker Sunday to smile — didn’t fully enjoy this game.
Second of all, anyone who didn’t also relish officially knocking the Patriots out of the playoffs for the second time in two decades — meaning in a timeline of six fired Dolphins coaches and 20 failed quarterbacks — doesn’t appreciate the long, long, (long) arc of payback. OK, minor payback considering the pain. But you take what you get.
Finally, 40 carries for 250 rushing yards?
Where did these Sons of Larry Csonka come from?
You knew the Patriots offense was bad entering Sunday. But the Dolphins made Belichick’s defense look sick, too. They didn’t just hold New England’s offense without a touchdown. They went all medieval on Belichick’s defensive pride and joy.
“I have to coach better, we have to play better, we have to tackle better — a combination of all those things,” Belichick said after Sunday’s 22-12 loss to the Dolphins (9-5). “Certainly we have to do a better job of tackling.”
That quote’s directly from the playbook of Cam Cameron, Philbin, Adam Gase and all the other Dolphins coaches who passed quickly through town in good part because of Belichick and Tom Brady.
“Miami was just better than we were today, and that’s the bottom line,” Belichick said.
Didn’t Dave Wannstedt say that after a Patriots win in 2004?
OK, let’s be honest: This was positively awful football for much of the day. Mistake-filled. Stone Age by necessity. The best pass of the day was thrown by Dolphins punter Matt Haack on a fake punt — and even that was called back by a penalty.
So let’s not dabble in any over-praising of, say, rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. There will be a time for praising him if he develops into what this franchise believes. He only did what was asked Sunday. He won the game despite his top two receivers, Devante Parker and Mike Gesicki, out with injuries.
That’s a quarterback’s prime job. Winning. And he did it. But he did it primarily by handing off like Tyler Thigpen or Sage Rosenfels. For a while, even Tagovailoa thought he might have made the big mistake when attempting to throw.
The Dolphins drove the ball down 95 yards on their second possession to the New England 2. Tua was great in completing all six attempts. But then, while being hit, he threw an interception.
“The whole first half I was dreading that was my fault,” he said. “We had points there and I forced it.”
New England led, 6-0, at half. It was Ambien for football fans. But then the Dolphins ran the ball eight of nine plays for 62 yards to open the second half. Running back Salvon Ahmed (23 carries, 122 yards) took the final carry for a 1-yard touchdown.
From there, it was on. The beatdown. The bloodying of the bully. But just as importantly for the Dolphins it was the progression of this offensive line into a unit capable of taking over a game. You hadn’t seen that before. A one-game outlier or sign of more to come?
“We executed,” Brian Flores said. “We should be proud of ourselves. That’s a well-coached team over there. We played well today.”
Don’t dismiss this stat, too: The Dolphins started 10 rookies Sunday. Some of that was due to offensive injury, some evidently to match-up decisions like safety Brandon Jones (who made another big play, forcing a fumble).
While the season’s story is the Dolphins and the playoffs, the bigger script remains about roster development. And improvement. In the opener against the Patriots, the Dolphins ran 27 times for 82 yards — a 3.2-yard average. They entered Sunday ranked last in the NFL at 3.6 yards per carry.
They had a 6-yard rushing average against New England. Did they play that much better? Are the Patriots that much worse?
Also in the first meeting, the Patriots rushed for 217 yards against this Dolphins defense. Newton ran for 75 yards and two touchdowns and Patriots fans were giddy that Brady wouldn’t be missed.
On Sunday, the Dolphins gave up yards — New England averaged 5.3 a carry — but never gave up a touchdown. And Newton? Well, New England didn’t add to its league-worst eight touchdown passes.
“We made some adjustments,” defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said.
Here’s the adjustment: The Dolphins continue down the playoff path while the Patriots are done. Hollywood does reversal-of-fortune films like this all the time. The Dolphins are the better team. The Patriots? Belichick goes to look for a quarterback like six failed Dolphins coaches once did. You’re allowed a smug smile.