Habib: Miami Dolphins KO the Patriots' dynasty with a win that's perfectly imperfect

Hal Habib
Palm Beach Post
Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) celebrates a fourth-quarter touchdown with his offensive linemen.

MIAMI GARDENS — More of their playmakers were wearing T-shirts than uniforms. One touchdown waiting to happen went down the drain and two touchdowns that did happen didn’t survive replay reviews. Special teams provided two spectacular plays. Only one counted.

And Brian Flores said this wasn’t perfect?

The Dolphins didn’t just defeat New England 22-12 Sunday, they slayed the dragon, denying the Patriots any shot at the playoffs or a 20th straight winning season or a chance to again look down on the Dolphins in the standings or, well, all the other trimmings that go along with a dynasty that is most definitely dead and buried.

And the Dolphins? They remained on a playoff track — with the Baltimore Ravens still breathing down their necks — despite being without their leading rusher, top five receivers and both starting guards. They took a patchwork offensive line, paired it with a featured back who looked rested, not rusty, after three weeks of inactivity, and left tire tracks all over the Patriots with 250 rushing yards.

Not perfect? It couldn’t have been more perfect.

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Flores never misses a chance to talk about wanting players to be physically tough, mentally tough and selfless. The Dolphins were all that Sunday, winning going away on an afternoon that had been belching out smoke signals of defeat.

This is the kind of win proves to a team there’s still more out there to be achieved. Because confidence is what results when you start six rookies on offense — no NFL team the past two years has done that in a game — and you still come out of it having added another crease in Bill Belichick’s frown.

“I think we’ve got a tough, mentally tough, physically tough, resilient group that knows how to deal with adversity,” Flores said.

Flores would be the last person to even hint the heavy lifting is done, but in less than two full seasons, he and general manager Chris Grier have torn it all down, built it back up and clinched only the second winning season for this franchise since 2009. The Dolphins are 9-5 heading into Saturday’s game at Las Vegas followed by the finale at Buffalo, two games that would send Miami to the playoffs if they sweep.

“I think we’ve got great fans, people who are lifers, man,” Flores said. “They love this team, so … I’m happy to bring some joy into their — or we’re happy, I should say — to bring some joy to these, to our fans because they deserve it.”

Note the subtle slip, one that Flores couldn’t let go uncorrected, even on the fly.

“This team, we don’t go in the tank,” he said. “We just keep playing. We just battle through.”

Dolphins punter Matt Haack (2) throws a pass on a fake-punt attempt in the third quarter Sunday. The play was nullified because of a penalty, but the Dolphins still went on to beat the Patriots 22-12.

What could give Flores that idea? Was it that second possession, which certainly was going to be a 98-yard touchdown drive until Tua Tagovailoa, under pressure from defensive lineman Chase Winovich, threw one up for grabs that turned into an interception and a 10-point swing when the Patriots kicked a field goal?

Oh, but that field goal occurred only after the Dolphin defense had been going bonkers celebrating what appeared to be the longest fumble return in franchise history, 86 yards by Xavien Howard. That party ceased when replays showed that the loose ball nicked the leg of Christian Wilkins while he was standing out of bounds, giving the ball back to New England.

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A beautiful pass by Matt Haack to convert a fake punt on fourth-and-7 was wiped out by penalty, the second time in three weeks Haack heroics were nullified because a teammate failed to report as eligible.

By contrast, a 1-yard “touchdown” by Salvon Ahmed, which also didn’t survive the eagle eyes of CBS’ cameras, was a mere inconvenience. Tagovailoa cashed in on the next play to make it 22-12.

Tagovailoa had run for a touchdown on the previous possession, although the highlight reel instead will focus on what occurred next. Going for two, Tagovailoa threw to Patriot-for-a-week Isaiah Ford, who pitched to Ahmed for the points. A hook-and-lateral on a conversion attempt? Somewhere, Don Strock, Duriel Harris and Tony Nathan had to be loving it.

That assured that the pressure keeps riveting up. The Raiders likely will be without quarterback Derek Carr when the Dolphins visit. With only one bye available in each conference, the Bills might be in resting mode by the time the Dolphins arrive. If you want to talk about building confidence, just look at the numbers 11-5 and dream about how that record might look for Flores’ second act.

So yeah, as perfect as anyone could ask for.

“We didn’t have to be perfect as an O-line and they didn’t have to be perfect as backs,” said guard Michael Deiter, pressed into action after rookie Solomon Kindley went down in the third quarter. “But they did a heck of a job.”