The hope was that two straight victories would become three. Hope lost out.
After playing so well in victories over the Jets and Colts, the Dolphins couldn’t keep it going Sunday against the Buffalo Bills, losing 37-20 in a game where they simply weren’t sharp enough on either side of the ball.
They did, however, win special teams. If only that was enough.
It’s sometimes hard to pinpoint the "whys" in this league. Why so many of the positives that surfaced during that mini-streak were nowhere to be found? Why the defense wasn’t nearly as effective, why the offensive line struggled and why in general the overall efficiency just wasn’t there?
You’d figure playing at home against an AFC East rival after winning a road game the previous week in Indianapolis would bring out the best in this team. But that just wasn’t the case. The first 13 plays on offense produced 11 yards and that set the wrong tone. The defense just couldn’t contain Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen, and that never really changed. Add it all up and you’ve got a day wrapped in frustration and disappointment. How else can you frame it?
Each time the Dolphins tried to mount a comeback, the Bills responded. That’s the storyline that wouldn’t go away.
Bright spots, there were several, but none more resounding than the play of Jakeem Grant. Mr. Electricity returned a kickoff 101 yards for a touchdown and scored a second touchdown on a 7-yard sweep from the Wildcat formation. He also had another 50-yard kickoff return late. We had been waiting all season for Grant’s breakout moment, and this was it.
Others? An onside kick by placekicker Jason Sanders was executed perfectly. I mean textbook perfectly. A 50-yard pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to DeVante Parker set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Kalen Ballage that got the Dolphins their first points. Parker had his best day of the season and became the first receiver to gain more than 100 yards in a game, finishing with seven catches for 135 yards.
But that was about it. The undeniable truth was the Bills controlled the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and that’s never good. On defense they sacked Fitzpatrick seven times and held the Dolphins to just 23 rushing yards on 13 carries. On offense, they gained 424 yards, Allen was never sacked and the rushing attack averaged 4.9 yards per carry compared to 1.8 yards for the Dolphins.
What else do you need to know?
“We didn’t play well collectively as a team across the board and it starts with me,” said coach Brian Flores. “I thought we were ready to play, but they outplayed us.”
Unlike in the first meeting about a month ago when two second-quarter touchdown drives helped forge a 14-9 halftime lead, this time the Dolphins fell behind 16-0 by midway through the second quarter, giving up three field goals and a touchdown on Buffalo’s first four possessions.
But that’s when things began to turn, at least for a while. First they closed within nine on that 3-yard run touchdown run by Ballage and then they pulled off that onside kick by Sanders and you began to wonder: Maybe they’ve got something going here?
And when Allen Hurns caught a pass cutting across the middle, breaking into the open field, it appeared the Dolphins were about to take make things real interesting. Trouble is, Hurns dropped the ball without ever getting touched, the Bills recovered and quickly extended the lead to 23-7 behind Allen’s second touchdown pass of the half.
Enter Grant. And suddenly it was a game again. His 101-yard return was the fourth touchdown return of his career, a team record, and cut the deficit to 23-14. It was vintage Grant, finding a crease in the middle, exploding to the outside and outrunning just about the entire Bills coverage team for the score. That’s two punts and two kickoff returns for touchdowns in just over 3 ½ seasons. Just a hunch, but I expect Grant isn’t done quite yet.
The Dolphins would never get closer than that nine-point deficit, the Bills outscoring them 14-6 in the second half.
There is a lot for this coaching staff to sort through from this game. How do they fix a broken rushing attack? How do they do a better job protecting Fitzpatrick? How do they produce a better pass rush and force more turnovers? The questions keep piling up. The answers are tough to come by.
“Got to just keep practicing, keep trying to get better,” said Flores.
We saw how well this team can play in those back-to-back victories and that was very encouraging. But we have also seen the reverse side, more so very early in the season, but to some extent in the losses like the one Sunday against the Bills.
This team has shown all season an ability to respond positively to adversity. We’ll get to find now, beginning next Sunday in Cleveland, whether they can do it again.