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It was a tough way for a season like this one to end. But a team that spent an entire season overcoming, this time simply had too much to overcome.
Steelers 30, Dolphins 12. No late-game heroics. No magical comeback. Just a frustrating afternoon in so many ways. But as much as we wanted this memorable joyride to continue, this game can’t and should not define a season that gave us so many positives and so much long-term promise.
We’ll never get to find out how these Dolphins might have done with a defense that wasn’t torn apart by injuries and with an offense that wasn’t missing both its starting quarterback and All-Pro center. It’s not an excuse; it’s an unfortunate reality. That they made it this far despite all of that became one of the great storylines of this NFL season and certainly can’t be diminished by what transpired against the Steelers.
Remember when the Dolphins were 1-4? Remember what that felt like? This team took us on a marvelous journey back to respectability, a journey that included six straight victories and so many game-turning moments, a journey that concluded with Coach Adam Gase facing his players in the locker room late Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field.
“Just remember this feeling,” Gase told his team. “You want to get back to this spot and try to make some noise.”
That’s the mission moving forward. Get back to a Sunday in January. Get back to a 17th game. Learn from this loss. Understand how much more it’s going to take. Gase wants his players to remember this feeling because he wants them to use it as fuel for the future.
Indeed, the Dolphins have come a long way this season. They now know what it takes to make it to the playoffs. What Gase is hoping is that on Sunday they got a close-up lesson on what it takes to advance.
But how can you not frame this season with a real sense of accomplishment? How many seasons have ended with Owner Steve Ross searching for answers? This season ended with Ross already having those answers.
“We have the right coach, the right people in place,” Ross said. “I’m happy with the direction we are going.”
There are many reasons the Dolphins lost this game. They fell behind early, a recurring theme throughout this season. The defense couldn’t contain, certainly early on, the passing of Ben Roethlisberger, the running of LeVeon Bell and the receiving of Antonio Brown. The offense, meanwhile, struggled to get going, three turnovers clearly having an impact on the game.
But perhaps the most telling statistic was that
The Steelers defense would have none of that. Ajayi’s longest run netted just eight yards. He never really had a chance to get going. He had become the identity of this offense and when you lose your identity, that’s difficult to overcome.
“Just can’t have those,” Moore said afterward.
It was those first three Steelers drives that set an unfavorable tone, getting a pair of touchdown passes to Brown and a scoring run by Bell to make it 20-0 early in the second quarter.
Even with all of that, the Dolphins had a chance to make it a one-touchdown game just before halftime. But a lost fumble by Moore after a blind-side hit from linebacker James Harrison ended that threat in the red zone and left the Dolphins two touchdowns down.
Moore’s second and third turnovers came on the first two possessions of the third quarter, helping lift the Steelers to a 30-6 lead and really ending all doubts. “We knew what we had to do, we just didn’t do it,” Gase said.
The brain trust of this team I imagine will spend some time analyzing this loss in the days ahead. They’ll see how “the next man up” way of thinking could only take this defense so far. They’ll break down the mistakes and the missed tackles and I’m sure they’ll admire how a back-up quarterback stepped up in so many pressure situations.
But the reality is they weren’t whole, that far too many important pieces were missing and that’s the shame of a season that gave us so much.
The players will clean out their lockers on Monday and head their separate ways, but what I believe they will take with them is far more important than a pair of used cleats or a dirt-stained jersey.
More than anything else, what they’ll take with them are riveting memories of a season when this franchise got back on track, a season of too many accomplishments to be tempered by a playoff loss.