As T.J. Watt wrestled a 36-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick to the ground late in the fourth quarter, ripping the ball out of his hands like an overeager Black Friday shopper getting rowdy for an Xbox, the immortal words of Dennis Green rang in the ears of every warm-blooded American who talked themselves into believing Miami might pull off the impossible.
Yes, the Dolphins are most definitely who we thought they were, as a 14-0 first quarter evaporated thanks to 27 unanswered points from the Steelers, who overcame a slow first half for a 27-14 win at Heinz Field on Monday night.
But for 15 glorious minutes, the Dolphins looked like a real football team. Xavien Howard capitalized on a jittery Mason Rudolph for an early interception, one the Dolphins converted to seven points not long after. Their defense forced a turnover on downs, and Miami pieced together an 11-play, 63-yard touchdown drive on the next series. It was 14-0 Dolphins, 1:34 left in the first quarter.
As the second quarter wore on and Pittsburgh only mustered a field goal in response, the seeds of hope began to blossom into full-blown belief flowers. Rudolph looked confused and hesitant, Miami’s defense was swarming and Fitzpatrick looked primed to turn in another vintage Fitzmagic-level performance (death by a thousand slants). But lost somewhere in all this was the simple fact that the Dolphins are a terrible football team, and soon enough they would make a terrible mistake.
A Fitzpatrick bullet was deemed too catchable for Nick O’Leary’s liking, and the ball pinged off his chest plate directly into the waiting arms of a different Fitzpatrick--Minkah, the former Dolphins cornerback who was more than happy to begin pulling at the thread that would quickly unravel his former employer. Rudolph took over with 1:13 to go in the half and cobbled together a drive that brought Pittsburgh within field goal range. Defending a third-and-20 with under a minute to go and the Steelers well within field goal range, Miami dialed up … an all-out blitz?
Rudolph, in desperate need of an easy completion, hit Diontae Johnson over the middle on a shallow cross upon realizing there was not a defender within acres of his target. Johnson turned upfield, came to the same realization and blazed his way into the end zone. Every ounce of momentum built up by nearly 30 minutes of acceptable, NFL-level football was sucked out of the Dolphins by the inexplicable, wantonly aggressive, horribly misguided decision to call a zero blitz on third-and-20 with less than a minute left in the half and drop a total of just three defensive backs into coverage.
It didn’t feel like the Dolphins were winning when they took the field in the second half, and they quickly made sure to correct the obvious clerical error on the scoreboard. Miami didn’t score again, turned the ball over three times and failed twice on fourth-down conversions. The Steelers found their groove, hung another 17 points on their hapless fishy friends and the better team won the football game.
Rudolph shook off his first-half jitters and finished a solid 20-of-36 for 251 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Conner came alive for 145 yards and a touchdown while JuJu Smith-Schuster and Johnson outclassed a depleted Dolphins secondary for 103 and 84 yards, respectively, to go with a touchdown apiece. Watt terrorized the Miami O-line and logged two sacks while Minkah Fitzpatrick added a second interception as Pittsburgh’s defense eliminated any lingering contrails of Ryan’s Fitzmagic.
As for the Fins, they didn’t lose for lack of effort. Fitzpatrick reminded everyone he is a freak at age 36 by running the ball himself directly into the heart of the defense on consecutive plays late in the third quarter. Brian Flores appeared ready to have an aneurysm after the fourth down spot was (incorrectly) overturned, and the defense tried to make up for its lack of talent and depth by playing admirably hard all game.
But when you exist on the cutting edge of tanking culture, a team like the Dolphins simply can’t lose a football game. It must be a work of art, a game and a collapse so predictable yet so nuanced it even allowed viewers at home enough time to consider the possibility it might not happen.
Of course, it did, and we are all fools for expecting anything different.
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1. J.J. Watt goes down with a torn pec, his third season-ending injury in four years.
2. Despite a poor outing from Kyle Allen, he keeps the starting job for another week.
3. Dan Quinn’s seat has gone full nuclear.
4. Sam Darnold’s ghosts scared off the Dolphins and Steelers.
5. Is your favorite middling NFL team a contender or a pretender?
I had a teacher in high school who, in lieu of teaching religion, would instead show Russian car crash compilations for the duration of class. Why is there so much dash-camera footage of Russian car crashes, you ask? Because they drive like this.
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