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Dolphins nearly shock Bills, sending positive message for future | Habib

SportsDolphins nearly shock Bills, sending positive message for future | Habib

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — A couple of gifted timeouts that nullified bad plays. A bouncing ball there for the taking, for anyone interested. A magnifying-glass first-down conversion that effectively ended all hope.

Those were the kind of game-of-inches plays that separated the Dolphins from pulling off the biggest upset in their playoff history Sunday. It goes down as a 34-31 victory for the Buffalo Bills, and the Dolphins will tell you they’re not interested in moral victories, even after a game nobody expected to be this close.

Receiver Tyreek Hill, obtained via trade for moments just like these, was bemoaning afterward about how the Dolphins spent all year preparing for moments like this and “it definitely sucks” that in the end, the moment was just that. The end.

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Yet in the next breath, even Hill seemed conflicted about what to make of a season in which they won and lost games by the handful. Is it a net plus?

“Nah,” he said, before correcting himself. “I mean, yeah. It’s always one step at a time for us. First step is making the playoffs. We did that. The second step was obviously winning a playoff game. We didn’t complete that step. All we have to do is complete that step and get better for it.”

Hill hasn’t even been here a calendar year but he knows he’s not in Kansas City anymore. Dec. 30, 2000. That’s when the Dolphins last won a playoff game, and they haven’t come close in all the years since. Until Sunday, that is. Were there not a few minutes when you thought the impossible was possible?

They did it without Tua Tagovailoa, the guy instrumental in nearly all their victories this season. They did it with Lester Cotton not just playing but If you knew the name Lester Cotton before Sunday, you’re either an avid fan or have a lot of time on your hands. Both the secondary and the offensive line, which Cotton patrolled, bore little resemblance at the end of the season to what was expected at the beginning of it.

Bills sentimental favorites with Damar Hamlin recovering

Oh, and need we mention the Dolphins were playing the league’s sentimental favorites, the Bills, who were playing less than two weeks after seeing safety Damar Hamlin go into cardiac arrest right before their eyes? Hamlin wasn’t at the game, in person, but you know he was in spirit.

Put that together and you have 13 1/2-point underdogs, these Dolphins were. You had to know there were scores of those who gave the points and were feeling mighty proud of themselves early in the second quarter when the Bills were cruising 17-0.

Except the guys on the visitors’ sideline had their own ideas for what came next.

“We seen what could happen at any given moment,” Hills said. “Like the Jaguars and the Chargers.”

In the role of Trevor Lawrence was Dolphins rookie Skylar Thompson, who finished just 18-of-45 (40 percent) for 220 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions. Thompson’s receivers didn’t do him many favors, particularly on a drop by a wide-open Waddle that could have set the tone on only Miami’s second snap.

Could haves — a book could be written on all the could-haves for the afternoon, which has to be a testament to plucky Miami. Interceptions by Xavien Howard and Jevon Holland and a 50-yard punt return by Cedrick Wilson brought the Dolphins back to 17-all shortly before halftime. Then things turned even more improbable. Eric Rowe blindsided Josh Allen to force a fumble, Jaelan Phillips bounced on Allen to make sure he didn’t touch the ball and Zach Sieler completed the threesome by recovering for a touchdown and a 24-20 Dolphins lead.

“Skylar, he started rolling and began to bring guys along with him,” Hill said.

But these are the Dolphins. Pat them on the back for coming within three points in each of two visits to Highmark Stadium, their personal house of horrors, but you can’t let them off the hook for failures of their own doing.

High among them was coach Mike McDaniel’s decision to have Thompson throwing from the shadow of his own end zone on a hopeless third-and-19 play that produced an interception by former Florida Gator and Benjamin standout Kaiir Elam. It set up an easy touchdown that put the Bills ahead for good at 27-24.

Sean McDermott also makes questionable decisions

Bills coach Sean McDermott served up gifts of his own, twice calling timeouts just before snaps to nullify plays he would have loved to have seen count. One was an absolute mulligan that McDaniel needed when he couldn’t resist the temptation to go for it on fourth-and-6 from his own 37. Doing so, with 8 1/2 minutes left, is questionable enough had Tagovailoa been at the controls. But a rookie QB? And asking him to throw a low-percentage deep ball? McDaniel thankfully reconsidered after that gifted timeout and sent in the punt team.

More confusion came on Miami’s next, and final series. Thompson had them on the move at midfield, facing a third-and-1, when Salvon Ahmed was stopped for no gain. McDaniel was mistakenly told by coaches up above the Dolphins had a first down. Once he realized they did not, he tried a late substitution with the play clock winding down. Predictably, the Dolphins were hit with a delay penalty. One incompletion later, Buffalo had the ball and was able to run out the clock via Devin Singletary’s third-down conversion by millimeters.

Just like Thompson, McDaniel completed his rookie year in his job. Come next year, he’ll have to straighten out the sideline confusion that saw clock management, communication and replay challenges issues.

That’s the thing, though. Those kind of issues — what the players like to call “little things” even though they’re not so little — are more fixable than the kind of issues that have kept the Dolphins from winning a playoff game for a generation. Namely, talent. These Dolphins have it now, even if a fair amount of it spent Sunday either spectating or (in the case of warrior Terron Armstead) suiting up when plenty of others would not.

“I think the Miami Dolphins have got a lot of promise moving forward,” tight end Mike Gesicki said.

You wouldn’t want odds on Gesicki being part of that future here. But you can’t help but feel he’s right.

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