The Dolphins’ first half of football in the 2014 regular season could only be described as sloppy, but neither the coaches nor the players panicked about a 10-point deficit against the New England Patriots.
What ensued was an almost-flawless performance in the final two quarters that gave the Dolphins a big 33-20 victory Sunday at Sun Life Stadium.
The Dolphins won their second consecutive season opener after outscoring New England 23-0 in the second half and outgaining them 222 yards to 67. Miami beat Cleveland in its 2013 opener on its way to a 3-0 start on the season.
“We knew we were going to face something like that,” defensive end Olivier Vernon said. “It’s not going to be a perfect game. We knew there could be doubt at some point. Something is going to go completely wrong and we just knew how to bounce back from that.”
It was the second consecutive Dolphins victory against New England, following their 24-20 thriller at Sun Life Stadium last December, the first time they’ve beaten the Patriots twice in a row since 2000-01.
On Sunday, the Dolphins won thanks to a 13-point third quarter that included a 14-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Tannehill to Mike Wallace and a pair of short field goals by Caleb Sturgis.
The Dolphins got an insurance touchdown with 3:29 left in the fourth quarter when Knowshon Moreno put the finishing touches on a memorable Dolphins debut with a 4-yard run to cap an 85-yard drive.
Moreno finished with 134 yards, thanks to some strong blocking from the new-look Dolphins offensive line and his ability to see the hole and break tackles.
With Lamar Miller adding 59 yards on 11 carries, the Dolphins ended up with 191 yards on the ground.
“If we can run and keep ourselves out of third-and-long, we could be a good team,” tackle Branden Albert said. “But we’ve got to help our defense out like we did today. They did a good job helping us out when we needed them. It was a good trade-off. We did good today.”
The defense definitely came up big for Miami, particularly with a dominating second-half performance.
The Dolphins shut down the high-powered New England offense despite playing without its three starting linebackers — Philip Wheeler, who was inactive, and Dannell Ellerbe and Koa Misi, who both left the game with injuries in the first quarter.
After allowing the Patriots to rack up 248 yards in the first half, the Dolphins defense stiffened in the second half. The Dolphins sacked Tom Brady on four of New England’s first four possessions of the second half, with Cameron Wake, rookie Chris McCain, Olivier Vernon and Wake again taking down the Patriots quarterback.
Wake forced a fumble on his first sack, setting up the Wallace touchdown that tied the game at 20. The fumble, which was recovered by safety Louis Delmas, might have been the biggest play in a game that featured many big plays.
“With Tom Brady behind the offensive line, it’s never a game-changing play until there’s 1 second to go, but I definitely felt the momentum change,” Delmas said. “I definitely felt that the offense knew that they had to make the play after the turnover, and they did.”
The Dolphins defense held New England to a mere two first downs in the second half before the Patriots’ last possession.
The Dolphins trailed by 10 at halftime despite a start they couldn’t have scripted any better.
The defense held New England to a three-and-out, punter Ryan Allen then dropped the snap on fourth down and McCain came in to block the punt to give the Dolphins the ball at the Patriots 15-yard line.
Four plays later, Tannehill hit Miller in the flat for a 4-yard touchdown and quick 7-0 lead.
But the Dolphins turned the ball over on their next three possessions, fumbles by Wallace and Miller sandwiched around an interception by Tannehill.
The interception, with the game tied 7-7, really hurt because it came on an underthrow when Wallace was wide open behind the New England secondary.
The turnovers helped the Patriots score 17 unanswered points before the Dolphins cut the deficit to 17-10 with a 38-yard field goal by Sturgis on the last play before the two-minute warning. Sturgis added a fourth field goal, from 27 yards out, with 2:44 left in the fourth quarter.
“We were just shooting ourselves in the foot,” Albert said. “We had three turnovers in the first half. We were driving the ball; we didn’t punt the ball in the first half. We had to help the defense out. When we helped the defense out, you see what they could do. It was good for our team.”
New England answered Sturgis’ first field goal with a field goal drive before halftime, with Stephen Gostkowski connecting from 46 yards out with 6 seconds left.
That set the stage for the second half when the Dolphins took over the game and completely manhandled their AFC East opponents.
The Dolphins will face another AFC East opponent next Sunday when they travel to Ralph Wilson Stadium to face the Buffalo Bills.
“We’re 1-0, 1-0 in the division, 1-0 in the season,” defensive tackle Jared Odrick said. “No matter who it is. It’s a big win because of who it is against a division rival, it’s the first game, but you must, you must, focus just as much as you did on this first game and if you don’t, it’s an easy way to lose in this league.”
For openers, though, the Dolphins sure put on an impressive performance, even though Philbin wasn’t quite ready to call it a statement game.
“We just said it there in the locker room, it’s kind of the first step on a long journey,” Philbin said. “It’s great to win. These guys have been working hard. They invested an awful lot into this one particular game, and I’m certainly delighted that we won the game, but there’s a lot of football left and I don’t know (that) there’s a statement.
“Our guys played a good football game, played 60 minutes and hung in there, hung tough. We had a lot of guys contributing and that’s what you want to have happen.”