Miami Gardens, FL – For many people, there has to be a breaking point when you’ve heard something said so much that you can’t take it anymore and are forced to silence the crowd. For the Miami Dolphins, it was a narrative that has plagued their season up to this point – the fact that they can’t beat teams with a winning record. With their remaining games all against teams with winning records, The Dolphins had to do just that to clinch a playoff spot.
Some may consider it annoying, others a worrying sign about a postseason push, but looking at their matchups this season, there’s no denying that their losses have come against the best teams in football. So with that said, Miami had to perform against the prevalent 10-4 Dallas Cowboys, one of the better teams in the NFC.
And on the biggest stage under the lights on Christmas Eve, the Dolphins led early, fell behind, and rallied to the tune of a last-second field goal to defeat the Dallas Cowboys by a score of 22-20. It was a gritty, hard-fought win that had an unlikely hero. Nevertheless, the Fins got the job done and gave South Florida one hell of an early Christmas present.
In the process, they also clinched a spot in the AFC playoffs with an 11-4 record. No matter what happens in the next two weeks for this team, whether good or bad, the Fins will be competing in the postseason for the second straight year under head coach Mike McDaniel.
Count us IN. ✅ pic.twitter.com/OFuI7RrTqf
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 25, 2023
So how did we get here?
The Dak Attack Strikes Back
Both teams in this game were scarily even in many categories, including their record, their scoring offenses, and their inability to win the big games. So the fact that this game was only decided by a pair of points shouldn’t come as a surprise, and who knows? Maybe this has a better chance of being a Super Bowl preview than what you may think.
But unlike what many predicted, this game was not defined by the high-powered offenses. Instead, the defense was the story of the contest, with Miami’s making an impact early on. After being torched for most of the Cowboys’ first drive, a fumble right in front of the end zone was recovered by Brandon Jones, denying points.
Get ready to see that name a lot.
Both of these offenses are known for their explosive plays, and the Cowboys flexed their muscles on the next drive – a 49-yard sprint to the end zone by the elusive Ceedee Lamb gave them a 7-3 lead. It took a while, but they got the touchdown that they lost on the opening drive back.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 24, 2023
Something that limited the Dolphins’ firepower in their game last week against the Jets was the loss of Tyreek Hill due to an injury. However, against Dallas, he was back to his usual self, dominating the midfield. The Fins rolled along but were stopped on a fourth-down attempt in the red zone. Coach McDaniel is known for gambling on these types of plays, but it left a lot of people wondering why the Dolphins settled for a field goal regardless.
Nevertheless, the (slightly) healthier Miami defense recovered and forced a Dallas punt right after. A matchup many fans wanted to see was Lamb going up against Jalen Ramsey on the outside, but we didn’t see that until the second half for the most part. Besides, after that touchdown earlier, Lamb was hardly targeted until the fourth quarter.
Once again, the Dolphins offense looked to have gotten something going against a beat-up Dallas secondary, only for it to come crashing down in Cowboys territory. So once again, Sanders was asked to score points, and he delivered with a 52-yard field goal, cutting the Dallas lead to a single point.
It’s also worth noting that the Dolphins looked to have some major injuries early on as both Raheem Mostert (Undetermined) and Jaylen Waddle (Eye) had to be helped off the field. But as it turned out, both players turned out to be okay enough to play on. Waddle ultimately had to leave the game later on after being injured again, this time to his shins.
Mostert didn’t skip a beat though. After another Cowboys punt, Tua conducted a masterful two-minute drill, getting players like Cedrick Wilson Jr and Durham Smythe involved. It was capped off with a short pass to Mostert who walked in for Miami’s first and only touchdown right before halftime. Despite being arguably outplayed, it was the Dolphins with the lead.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 24, 2023
KICKERS. MATTER. TOO.
If you’re a fan of special teams, then the second half of this game was magical.
After a pair of punts by both Miami and Dallas, four straight field goals – two by the Dolphins and two by the Cowboys – took up most of the third and fourth quarter. Through it all, Miami still held on to the lead by a score of 19-13.
For Miami, a lot of credit has to be given to the defensive line who adjusted and kept the pressure on Dak Prescott and their offensive line. While you might see a lot of registered sacks, Dak was hit a lot in this game, just barely getting passes out that mostly fell incomplete.
For Dallas, their defense faltered a bit in terms of keeping the Dolphins out of Cowboys territory. Tua had his way throwing the ball and was only sacked once in this entire game, thanks to a stout and string offensive line. Tua himself was very accurate, not putting passes in dangerous situations to be intercepted. And when drives didn’t end their way, Sanders came through with a 54 and 35-yard pair of field goals.
The fourth quarter was some of the scariest football you’ve seen. After a disappointing three-and-out thanks in part to the one sack mentioned above, Dallas began their comeback drive. They were held to third down four times in this drive, as well as a pair of fourth downs, but came through every time as Lamb was his usual self, evading tacklers and giving this defense headaches.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) December 25, 2023
On fourth and goal, Miami thought they had their stop when a Prescott pass fell incomplete, but a pass interference call on the Dolphins’ secondary kept the drive going. On the ensuing third down, a fade to Brandin Cooks was successful, giving Dallas a one-point lead with three minutes to go.
After the collapse against the Titans two games ago, it was disappointing to see Miami give up a lead this late in the game again, even if it was to a significantly better team than Tennessee. Still, we’ve seen a few game-winning drives by Tua and the offense this season, and this would be the best time to add to his list.
Miami’s final drive was as methodical as it gets, relying on short passes for four, five, and six-yard gains to ensure first downs. They would get closer to field goal range, and chew time off the clock in the process. Everyone seemed to get a crack at the ball, including De’Von Achane (which came with a facemask penalty, that helped) Hill, Wilson, and Alec Ingold.
After a clutch catch by Hill for 10 yards, Miami was in Cowboys territory. From this point onward, they relied on the run game courtesy of Jeff Wilson Jr. Three straight runs for 14 yards later, and the Fins found themselves at the 10-yard line.
Tua took a knee, Coach McDaniel called a timeout with two seconds to go, and the rest is history.
DOLPHINS CLINCH A PLAYOFF BERTH ON A WALK-OFF FIELD GOAL!
📺: FOX pic.twitter.com/ynIkpoMfGt
— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLonFOX) December 25, 2023
A Standoff At The Statistics
Indeed, the MVP of this game was the Dolphins kicker, Jason Sanders, who finished with five field goals including the game-winner to achieve a legacy game for him. Through ups and downs this season, Sanders certainly earned himself the easiest AFC Special Teams Player Of The Week Award ever.
Tua had another excellent game, racking up 293 yards off of 24 completions with an additional passing touchdown and no interceptions. As mentioned earlier, he had time in the pocket and was only sacked once against one of the scariest defenses in football.
Hill had himself a quiet but effective game, catching nine passes for 99 yards. Now with 1,641 yards in the season, the 2K mark seems to be slipping away but you never know. Both Smythe and Waddle racked up over 50 receiving yards to boot, and Cedrick Wilson Jr earned a solid 42 yards against his former team.
On the ground, Mostert led the way with 46 yards off of 11 carries, but his sole touchdown was from a pass. You have to give a lot of credit to Jeff Wilson Jr down the end of the game with his 21 yards, including 14 on the final drive.
Miami’s defense had a very solid game, limiting a great offense to just 20 points. Andrew Van Ginkel led the way in tackles with 10 total, and the defensive group collected four sacks on Dak Prescott.
Overall, Miami outgained the Cowboys in yards with 375 to 339, while Dallas led the time of possession by three extra minutes. Overall pretty even stats against two evenly matched teams. Aside from the Cowboys fumble at the beginning, neither team turned the ball over.
— Miami Dolphins (@MiamiDolphins) December 24, 2023
As we approach the end of the regular season, history tends to be made in the form of milestones. For Waddle, that was achieved with his third straight 1,000-yard season – the first Dolphins wide receiver to do so.
In addition, Mostert has run for 1,000 rushing yards on the season, while Tua has thrown for 4,000 yards, his most in a single season as a Miami Dolphin.
Clinching a spot in the playoffs is nice, but the job’s not done. With two games to go, Miami can win out to potentially win the AFC East and maybe even lock in a first-round bye. Standing in their way next week, however, is a road game in Maryland against the 11-3 Baltimore Ravens, arguably the best team in the conference. That’ll be on Sunday, December 31st at 1 pm.
📸Credit: Miami Dolphins