MIAMI GARDENS — Jason Sanders lined up for a 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left and all that stood between the Dolphins and the NFL playoffs was their kicker overcoming recent history.
The Dolphins bespant the Jets 11-6 at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, a safety as time expired nowhere near as important as the kick Sanders delivered for a 9-6 lead moments earlier.
“I’ve owed these guys for a while now,” Sanders said in the joyful locker room after the game. “For it to come in a moment like this, though, it’s a special feeling, to be able to come through for the boys.”
Sanders was an All Pro just two seasons ago. But this year had been disastrous.
Sanders had missed six field goals and three extra points.
Sanders had lined up for field goals of 50 or more yards five times, but made only one.
“Hell, yeah, Jason!” Dolphins running back Raheem Mostert shouted loudly at Sanders from a nearby locker.
“Appreciate it Raheem,” Sanders replied.
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Sanders is such a laid-back guy that he had initially inquired about if he could delay his next media availability to Wednesday. No way, Jason, you just sent Miami to the playoffs for only the second time in 14 seasons.
“I struck it well,” Sanders said. “And it was one of those no-doubters.”
All season long, Dolphins special teams coach Danny Crossman has maintained that Sanders was striking it successfully in practice, including from 50 yards and beyond.
All season long, Crossman had said there’s not one thing that they’ve identified as needing correction. It’s one thing to say Sanders may need to tweak his swing or steps, but what about confidence?
Once a kicker, even an All-Pro kicker, loses his confidence, it’s sometimes almost impossible to recover.
After the game, I asked Sanders where his confidence level is now.
“At the moment — high,” he said. “But it’s always been high. I’ve always tried to have high confidence no matter if I missed the previous one. If you don’t forget about it, then you’re going to be behind the eight ball in the next game.”
When Sanders lined up for the kick, he did not know that Patriots were about to lose and that playoff dreams were literally on his right foot. That additional result was required in order for Miami to qualify as the seventh seed at 9-8.
Dolphins watched Patriots lose
The team watched the final moments of the Bills defeat of the Patriots together, in the locker room. Sanders explained that, in general, the life of a kicker can be a bit lonely.
“Definitely a unique position,” Sanders said. “Spend a lot of time by yourself. You know, watching the guys practice. But as long as you can stay level headed …”
Sanders, once a 7th-round pick from New Mexico, delivered when his teammates needed it most.
Conversely, the Jets’ kicker, Greg Zuerlein, missed a critical 55-yarder.
Sanders said punter Thomas Morstead had been a huge supporter all season.
“It’s well-deserved,” Morstead said of Sanders’ adulation. “He’s had a bit of a tumultuous year. And people don’t realize how good he is. That’s why he got that contract a few years ago. It takes really a lot of mental courage to hang in there like he has done. I told him in the third quarter, I said, ‘you’re going to win it for us today.’ “
Sanders played the biggest role in Miami snapping a 5-game losing streak and a 5-year streak without postseason play. His teammates were thrilled.
“I’ve got three words,” receiver Tyreek Hill said of watching the kick. “I was emotional.”
Jason Sanders hero of the day
“Jason saved the day for us,” cornerback Xavien Howard said.
“It was a relief,” receiver Jaylen Waddle said. “It was a big-time relief.”
Meanwhile, Sanders was talking about how he’s focused on trusting his training.
“Every kick to me is a big kick,” Sanders said.
On his way to a post-game news conference, passing through the locker room, Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel chirped to everyone and no one in particular, “Playoffs? Playoffs? You kidding me? Playoffs?”
No, it turns out every kick is not the same.