The Miami Dolphins offense that has lit up the NFL this season, leading the league in scoring, total yards and passing yards, unleashing Tyreek Hill toward an historic 2,000-yard season and becoming the first team in 56 years to have a 70-point game — that offense was its own worst enemy Sunday.
And still the Dolphins found a way to win.
They kept their record at home perfect on the season with a 20-13 victory against the Las Vegas Raiders because Miami’s defense proved up to a starring role on a day when the offense had three turnovers, missed a field goal and failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Raiders 3-yard line.
“Our defense was able to will us through that game,”quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said.
This is what good teams do.
If the lightning isn’t working, turn to the thunder.
Miami’s defense — inconsistent, bottom 10 in points allowed, overshadowed all year by the offense — had its day Sunday, and that’s why Miami is 7-3 and still in command in the AFC East as the season’s second half digs in.
The Dolphins led only 14-13 at halftime despite almost doubling Vegas in total yardage, 258-133.
A pair of Tagovailoa scoring passes — 38 yards to Tyreek Hill and then 11 yards to Salvon Ahmed — were enough for that slimmest of leads at the break. (Hill’s 146 yards receiving Sunday gave him the most ever through 10 games in the Super Bowl era. And Tagovailoa threw for 325 yards.)
But Miami’s own uncharacteristically sloppy play kept the score close. Lost fumbles by Tagovailoa and by third-string tight end Julian Hill both led to Vegas field goals. The Fins’ pass defense gave up a 46-yard TD throw to Davante Adams (its only notable blemish). And Miami failed to convert a fourth-and-1 from the Raiders 3 when a quick pass to Tyreek Hill lost 4 yards.
The Dolphins could add only a pair of field goals in the second half, but that was plenty because the defense pitched a shutout after the break.
Vegas’ second half possessions ended like this:
Interception by Jalen Ramsey.
Stopped on fourth down.
Interception by Jaelan Phillips.
The another interception — by Ramsey again, the game-clincher with 22 seconds left.
“Just playing the game I know how to play,” said Ramsey, only recently back from his preseason knee injury. Fittingly he was brought first to the postgame interview room — still in his grass-stained uniform, the sweat still on him. “Lockdown defense is what we strive to do.”
“This dude is next level,” said Hill of Ramsey, star on star. “I’m glad we’re on the same side.”
Three consecutive fourth-quarter Miami punts kept putting the game squarely on the defense’s shoulders.
“We got this,” the defense’s response kept shouting.
Coach Mike McDaniel went for a 51-yard field goal on fourth-and-1 for a seven-point lead because, “I was super confident in the defense. I thought (seven points) was pretty safe. A lot of prideful, high-quality players on that side of the ball. You figured it was just a matter of time. We’re starting to see that now.”
Miami would limit the Raiders to 296 total yards in a masterful display.
The Raiders entered 5-5 but Miami was a 13 1/2-point favorite, biggest of the day in the NFL.
The Dolphins are now 7-0 vs. teams without a winning record.
They keep making their layups and their two-foot putts, beating the teams they should, sometimes with dominance, and sometimes like Sunday.
They should be favored in the next four games, so an 11-3 record entering a tough closing stretch of schedule does not seem implausible.
It has been 15 years since it last happened, but it isn’t the kind of anniversary one celebrates.
The Miami Dolphins last won the AFC East in 2008 but an asterisk is needed. The New York Patriots’ 16-year run of division dominance was interrupted that one year only because Tom Brady got injured in the season opener and was out for the year. Post-Brady, the Buffalo Bills have taken over and been East champs the past three seasons.
Miami’s last time winning on its own and apart from the ‘08 aberration was in 2000. Not coincidentally, that also was the last season the Fins won a playoff game at home.
“The goal is to win the division,” McDaniel made clear before the game. “That is the only way you ensure that you’re, for one, in the playoffs, that you have a home game in the playoffs and you set yourself up for a journey, not a game.”
Tagovailoa noted, “Nothing’s done. There’s nothing accomplished being 7-3.”
Yet the Dolphins look headed there. To an AFC East title. To a postseason journey, not a game.
Especially if the Miami defense we saw Sunday continues to show this is a team that can win even when the offense is missing the fireworks.
Miami averaged 37.2 points over the first six games but has now averaged only 20.5 over the past four games.
The defense — this defense — will have to continue to be a big reason why that AFC East title stays in sight.