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One play. One nightmarish play. It cost the Dolphins a victory on Sunday and, in so many ways, it summed up why a promising 3-0 start now seems like so long ago.
It was the offensive line giving up a crucial sack. It was the ball being knocked away from Ryan Tannehill’s grasp. It was a turnover when the only thing that couldn’t happen was a turnover. All things we have seen far too many times this season. But on this day, at this precise moment, it meant the difference, the difference between a team feeling so confident heading into New England and a team now searching for answers after three straight defeats.
Heartbreak? A 23-21 loss to the Buffalo Bills was exactly that, a game the Dolphins, by all rights, deserved to win. Until that one play changed everything.
In some ways, it seems cruel to lump 60 minutes of football into one moment. But, in this case, how can you not? The Dolphins had the ball at midfield. They were up by one. Less than three minutes remained. You can make the argument that if they run the ball three times and punt that the Bills, playing with an inexperienced quarterback, had shown no indication that they were capable of driving the length of the field. At the very least, one first down probably wins the game.
The victory was so close, you could almost touch it.
But the Bills were stacking the box and the Dolphins saw the potential for a big play, a play that could conceivably seal the deal. Ryan Tannehill fades back to throw and never really had a chance. Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams – clearly the best player on that defense — beats right tackle Tyson Claybo on a bull rush, beats him badly. The ball gets knocked out of Tannehill’s hands, the Bills recover and all they had to do was run the clock down before escaping with Dan Carpenter’s 31-yard game-winning field goal.
Shock. Pain. Disgust. Second-guessing. In an instant, the sweetest of victories turns into the most sour of defeats. You can look back and ask so many questions: Why not run the ball in that situation after the running game had some success earlier in the game? Why not have a back or a tight end helping Tyson Clabo? Why expose Tannehill to what became his seventh fumble of the season? So many whys, so few answers.
But at the end it simply came down to one man beating another and as Tyson Clabo faced the media late Sunday afternoon, you saw the pain in his eyes and heard the hurt in his voice.
“I take full responsibility,” he said. “Those were my sacks (he gave up two), no way around it.”
As for Tannehill, he just shrugged: “All I needed was another half second.”
But he never got it. Not with big Mario Williams in his face. Not with a massive hand grabbing at the ball. One harsh moment separating this team’s first 4-2 start in a decade from a loss that in many ways is so hard to fathom.
The Dolphins were down 14-0 early. Tannehill couldn’t have played much worse, throwing two interceptions, one returned for a touchdown. It looked like one of those days after a bye week when you wondered whether the team was still on a bye. But Tannehill got hot, the defense found its rhythm and three touchdown passes – two to Brandon Gibson – put the Dolphins on top 21-17 heading into the fourth quarter.
A Carpenter field goal made it a one-point game early in the fourth quarter. It looked like a safe one point lead, if that is truly possible. But then it all came apart in a heartbeat. The sack. The fumble. The turnover. The game.
“We’ve got to do a better job holding on to the football,” said center Mike Pouncey.
Added guard Richie Incognito: “It’s on us. We’re killing ourselves right now. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got to come up with some answers.”
Standing next to him was Clabo, still searching for the right words, still replaying in his mind the play that turned his Sunday afternoon into a gut-wrenching experience, undoubtedly one of the lowest moments of his nine-year career.
“It was a power inside move,” Clabo said. “I got beat. Tough to deal with. Real tough to deal with.”
Now, it is about moving on, about putting that one play behind them and about trying to find a formula that works. The Patriots are waiting and the Dolphins have no time to feel sorry for themselves.
On Tuesday, A.C. in the AM takes a closer look at the state of the team with 10 games left.
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