On a day when they could have made a statement as a contender, Miami again came up flat. The Dolphins started the year 3-0, with a good win at Indianapolis (that looks even better with what the Colts have done since). Three straight losses, which involved getting handled by New Orleans and now losing to both the Ravens and Bills at home sandwiched around the bye, has all those September feelings fading.
The game against Buffalo was the type that a playoff contender should win. They were coming off a bye. Buffalo is playing a backup quarterback, who was on the practice squad just a few weeks ago. It was at home. The Bills had struggled in pass coverage at key moments in recent losses.
Miami’s third loss puts them in rare company. They are the seventh team since 1990 to start 3-0 and then lose the next three games. The other teams were the 2002 Panthers, 2002 Patriots, 1994 Giants, 2009 Ravens, 1998 Seahawks, and 2000 Buccaneers (source: pro-football-reference.com). Those teams all won between 7 and 10 games for the year, so the ordering of the losses does not seem to be a harbinger of a greater slide.
In truth, Miami won close games early (2-0 in one score games in the first three) and have lost two close ones in this run. A few plays here, a few there, and the results may have flopped.
Let’s go through a few of them. The first key play was of course the interception on the very first possession that immediately had the Dolphins down 7-0.
Tannehill and the offense did not get going after that. He started 0 for 5 with that interception, and did not complete his first pass until the Dolphins were already down by 14. Miami is not built to be consistently explosive and strike fear in opponents. That early slow start was largely all that was necessary.
Near the end of the first quarter, Tannehill underthrew another one in the red zone, resulting in an interception. At the time, he was 2 for 9 for 32 yards, and had completed as many to the Bills. Again, a team like Denver and New Orleans can overcome those mistakes. The Dolphins’ margin is smaller.
Here’s a less noticeable example. This was on 3rd and 3 in the 2nd quarter. Third down conversions can be another area that can swing a close game.
Tannehill looks to Lamar Miller for the swing pass. He is picked up right away. Tannehill throws it over both of them out of bounds, and the Dolphins punt. It is understandable if Tannehill feels pressure, because the Dolphins’ tackles have been horrible. This time, though, he actually has time and does not need throw it away yet and give up on the play. Alonso (50) is reacting to his eyes. If he comes back and resets, he has receivers at the line to pick up a first down.
Miami did have its best drive of the game right before the half. Tannehill connected with Mike Wallace for a deep ball. Brandon Gibson then made a great grab on the sideline, but it wasn’t as amazing as what he did for the score. This kind of effort appeared to have Miami right back on track.
It did carry over for Miami for one more drive. They went on an extended drive to get the 21-17 lead. It was the last points they would get, though. What happened for the rest of the game?
Well, for one, they didn’t touch the ball for a while. Miami is trying to cope without Cameron Wake, and gave up a 14 play drive that resulted in a field goal, where the Bills repeatedly converted third downs with just enough yardage. Miami’s second possession of the second half began with 14:16 left in the 4th quarter.
That drive began with an underthrow of Wallace, and resulted in a punt after three plays. Tannehill had been plagued by sacks all year. He had been sacked at least 4 times in every game. In the Bills game, though, that was not an issue for the first three quarters. There were some throws under pressure but he had not been sacked.
He finally got sacked on the next possession, but it was nullified by defensive holding. Miami moved into Buffalo territory, with that one point lead. Then, the first official sack occurred. It would not, as it turned out, be the most costly. It was one of the worst surrendered sack I have seen in a while. Tyson Clabo just decided to not block Mario Williams, who then danced with Tannehill’s grill before he could even complete his drop.
That play killed the drive. The next one killed the game. After a Buffalo punt, Miami had the ball with the lead and less than four minutes left. Tannehill dropped to pass, and in two seconds, the pocket was gone and Mario Williams stripped him. Buffalo scored a field goal with 36 seconds left. These Bills fans were excited.
Miami will not fade despite the three straight losses. They will be in most games. They will win some and lose some, but the shine of what could have been after a 3-0 start has faded. They cannot afford a game that starts with an interception and ends with a fumble. Tannehill has to have good judgment, because seeing shadows playing with those tackles is understandable. Sometimes they are there, and they take the game away from you.