There's one more game left in the 2021 season, but the Dolphins now know definitively that one more game is all they will get. Sunday's loss, and results around the league, have eliminated Miami from postseason contention for the fifth-straight year, happening again in Week 17 for the second-straight season.
It's a bitter pill to swallow after the seven-game winning streak showed this team's potential. However, with one game remaining, the Dolphins can lock up their second-straight winning season with a victory in the finale against New England. It would mark the first time since 2002-03 that the Dolphins registered back-to-back seasons above .500 and would give Miami its first sweep of the Patriots since 2000, but it will be another offseason of thinking about those couple of games that swung the wrong direction at the buzzer.
As always, for further analysis, download the Drive Time Podcast with Travis Wingfield.
1. Sputtering Offense, Shaky Run Defense Too Much to Overcome
The Dolphins were driving deep into Titans territory early in the fourth quarter of a 17-3 game, with a chance to bring what seemed like a one-sided contest in nasty elements to a one-score game. But between an offense that could not find its way into the end zone and defense that surrendered nearly 200 yards on the ground, the levy finally broke.
Punt, punt, punt, fumble -- those were the results of Miami's first four drives. A fumble set the Titans up in the red zone. Still, Tennessee was only able to create 10 points of separation on the scoreboard with back-to-back punts of their own to open the game. The second half started the same -- with two Titans punts -- continuously giving the offense an opportunity to cut the lead to one score.
As the temperature dropped throughout the game and the rain started pouring, the Titans then turned up the heat on the ground. Running back D'Onta Foreman accounted for 132 yards and a touchdown on 26 carries, while Dontrell Hilliard added a 39-yard scamper to the end zone to but a final stamp on the day for Tennessee.
This was a disappointing performance from a defense that has played well throughout the second half of the season. For the offense, it mirrored what we have seen at other points this year.
In the second half of the season, Miami has scored on 29 of 87 total offensive drives (removing end of half drives ending in kneel downs), good for 33.3 percent. On the season, their drive success rate was 29.4 percent, 29th in the NFL.
Check out the top photos from Week 17 - Dolphins at Titans, presented by Sokin.
2. Taking Turns Making Mistakes
Between the turnovers, penalties and string of drives ending with a punt, the entire offensive operation shoulders its share of the blame for the shortcomings this loss. Sunday was not the sharpest performance of second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa's career, who completed just 18-of-38 passes for 205 yards and an interception. He was sacked four times, fumbled three times (losing one) and finished with a passer rating of 53.1.
The interception was a dropped pass that was kicked into the air and into the waiting arms of a Titans defender. The first drive of the game stalled out after Miami overcame a long down-and-distance, but without the ineligible man downfield call on the second play, the Dolphins could've ran their third play of the game from plus territory (the Titans' 41-yard-line).
Earlier this season during the height of the losing streak, Head Coach Brian Flores said that "we're out there taking turns making mistakes in all three phases." We saw more of that on Sunday, between errant passes, drops, clear miscommunications, penalties, missed tackles and errors in the kicking game that affected the field position battle. The Dolphins hurt themselves too many times to overcome a good Titans team that now has a chance to clinch the No. 1 seed in the AFC playoff race.
3.See the Forest for the Trees
By that same token, the results these Dolphins have posted the last two seasons has been the best 32-game run since Ricky Williams was winning rushing crowns for the aqua and orange. With a win Sunday, Miami can clinch a second-straight winning season for the first time since the 2002-03 seasons.
The Dolphins have 10 two-score victories over the last two seasons -- that's more than the entire total between 2014-19.
Dolphins Nation is justifiably upset today -- coming up short in big games time-and-time again will have that effect -- but it's important to see the big picture.
While this season didn't have the conclusion many Dolphins fans hoped for, the team is well-positioned to take another step. Nobody has more projected cap space than the Dolphins. The draft capital keeps on coming this season and next. And a young football team with ascending talent could conceivably expect improvement across the board from a 2021 draft class that looks like a home run, and a 2020 class that produced a handful of starters and contributors.
That draft capital and cap space isn't just about what the Dolphins can do on the surface; it keeps the organization in its favorite position -- one of flexibility. Draft picks, signings, trades, whatever the Dolphins desire, they can be aggressive in attacking the needs of the team.
We'll be covering all of that, all year long, on the Drive Time Podcast with Travis Wingfield.