If the day was ominous at the start, it was even more so at the end. Of all the sights the Dolphins wanted to see Sunday, crutches in the locker of quarterback Ryan Tannehill ranked last.
On this day, consolation came in the scoreboard — Dolphins 26, Cardinals 23, it read — and in the standings — Miami is 8-5, still holding firm in the AFC playoff race.
But this was a day signs pointed to Tannehill being lost for the season with a probable ACL tear to his left knee.
“It doesn’t look good,” coach Adam Gase said.
And so left tackle Branden Albert wasn’t in the mood for consolation prizes. He heard right tackle Ja’Wuan James addressing the hit delivered to Tannehill’s leg by Cardinals defensive tackle Calais Campbell at the end of the third quarter. He heard James said he couldn’t be sure if it was illegal.
He heard enough — and jumped in.
“Well, I was the one blocking the man,” Albert said. “It looked like it was illegal to me.”
Realizing the can of worms (controversy?) he’d just opened, Albert added, “I’m not starting nothing” as a signal he didn’t want to discuss it anymore.
Albert probably was outside of earshot moments earlier when James questioned Campbell’s style.
“It looked like 93 hit him kind of low,” James said. “And we saw that a little bit on film and stuff. But I don’t think it was malicious or anything. But he’s just a guy that likes to finish low.”
On the surface, it should have been a joyous locker room. The Dolphins had just come off a bizarre game in which their 21-9 fourth-quarter lead disappeared — giving up a 99-yard drive along the way — but showed spunk that is becoming a hallmark of Gase’s team.
Tied at 23-23 and taking possession with 1:29 left, the Dolphins needed every last second of it, barely managing to squeeze in a timeout signal with :01 left to allow Andrew Franks to kick a 21-yard field goal. That ended a six-play, 44-yard drive in which Tannehill’s understudy, Matt Moore, was 2 for 2 for 41 yards.
Rather than celebrating with teammates, Tannehill rode to the locker room in a cart, wearing street clothes.
First, the good news for the Dolphins: They remained in seventh place in the AFC and got a bit of help when No. 6 Denver lost, leaving the Broncos at 8-5 as well. In eighth place is Baltimore (7-5), which plays New England on Monday night. But since the Ravens hold the head-to-head tiebreaker edge over the Dolphins, Miami fans are in the wrenching position of having to root for the No. 1 Patriots (10-2).
It might be easy for many to discount Miami’s chances without its starting quarterback, but right guard Jermon Bushrod was having none of any suggestion the team’s psyche would be affected.
“It can’t. It just can’t,” Bushrod said. “Because if it does, then we’ll slip and we won’t have our eyes on the prize.”
The Dolphins began the game without six presumed starters on defense and without Pro Bowl center Mike Pouncey and then lost Tannehill after he’d thrown three touchdown passes.
“Nobody thought it was going to be a dropoff,” James said.
The scene on the sideline suggested otherwise. Tannehill had returned, out of uniform, after being examined in the locker room. He was in tears, consoled by Pouncey, Albert, Jarvis Landry and Moore. Tannehill was lost, but he knew the game was still out there to be won.
“I just told him that we’re going to get this win for him, no matter what,” Landry said. “I don’t care if we have to play eight quarters, nine quarters.”
James said Tannehill turned cheerleader.
“He’s like, ‘Y’all gonna get the ball back, y’all going to get another chance, keep believing, go out there and score,’ ” James said. “And on the last drive, we did. It’s good to see him happy at the end of the game, like, ‘I told you! I told you!’ So I think he’s in good spirits.”
So much of this day defied explanation. Intermittent storms kept the ball so slick that the teams combined for nine fumbles, each losing two. Arizona (5-7-1) added two interceptions to Miami’s one. The teams combined for 21 penalties (Miami had 14 for 118 yards). Offenses went backward with such regularity that shortly after Miami whiffed on a third-and-34 situation, Arizona duplicated it on third and 33.
Gase said the weather was entirely to blame for turnover-palooza, but James wanted no part of saying conditions made it impossible.
“It wasn’t impossible, I guess, because we won,” James said. “But it was pretty crazy. The ball was everywhere on both sides.”
After stifling Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer most of the game, Miami’s defense conceded touchdowns on back-to-back drives to open the fourth quarter. Fortunes began to shift following that first TD. Chandler Catanzaro’s extra point was blocked by Jordan Phillips, allowing Walt Aikens to scoop it up and return it for a two-point defensive conversion.
“I saw Mike T. (Michael Thomas) was right on my hip and everybody yelling, ‘Let’s go!’ ” Aikens said. “I had the whole infantry right there, so we took off together.”
The Dolphins, who have now outscored opponents 167-133 in the second half, benefited from Landry’s 20-yard punt return to the Arizona 47 to set up the winning drive. Moore hit Kenny Stills for 12 and 29 yards, with Stills coming up a yard shy of a TD on the second reception, but Franks’ field goal still did the trick.
So it was a win, even if it felt like a loss. Albert, who suffered an ACL tear two years ago, knows the routine too well.
“I just gave him a hug,” Albert said. “Just said I just feel bad for him. I know what he’s going through. I’ve been there.”
What’s next? A trip to the Meadowlands to face the Jets.
“I guess we’ve got to do what we’ve got to do,” Albert said. “It bothers me a lot, but we’ll figure it out — I guess.”
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