The Dolphins just won a game in frigid conditions, their reward being another important game in frigid conditions.
Dolphins teams aren’t supposed to thrive in such situations, the theory went, just as surely as they can’t perform in December and can’t find ways to close out games.
Wrong. Anyone who has even casually followed this season knows the Dolphins got off to a miserable start (1-4) but are one of the hottest teams in the NFL (on an 8-1 roll). And what Saturday’s 34-13 victory over the New York Jets proved once again is how successful they are in finishing games, which could lead to them finally finishing a season in style.
It’s no accident that the Dolphins outscored the Jets 21-0 in the third quarter. The Dolphins have become such a second-half team that they now have outscored opponents by 58 points in the second half and overtime this season, which entering Sunday was the second-best differential in the NFL behind Denver’s plus-66.
The reason most players point to? Fitness.
“We train harder, I think,” cornerback Byron Maxwell said. “We’re smart when we’re training but at least me, I try to take it to the edge every time I’m out there at practice. You could tell it’s starting to pay off. We’re more conditioned when we get to the fourth quarter and we just feel stronger. It’s like it’s time to finish.”
Quarterback Matt Moore: “We’re well-conditioned. That’s kind of been a theme all year for us.”
Hearing such talk is a bit ironic now. It was 35 degrees at kickoff for the Jets game, and the Dolphins’ next assignment is a Christmas Eve date in Buffalo, where the forecast calls for game time temperatures in the upper 30s and, naturally, wind. In other words, polar (literally) opposite of what the Dolphins train in most of the year, especially during training camp. Doesn’t matter.
“You’re in a different type of shape,” safety Michael Thomas said. “That’s it.”
Right tackle Ja’Wuan James credited rookie coach Adam Gase, who has begun ramping up practices as the day goes on to better simulate the demands the season and games put on the body.
“A lot of the more high-intense stuff is later in practice, when he said you’ll be tired,” James said. “I think at the end of games, we’re just being in better condition.”
That’s not the only factor. To a lesser extent, players credited halftime adjustments. But only so much can be changed in the few minutes teams have in their locker rooms. There’s only so much Gase can say — or wants to say. He admits he’s no Knute Rockne with halftime pep talks.
“That’s not my style,” he said. “Guys do a good job. They get themselves juiced up pretty good.”
Gase wishes that were always the case. When the topic was first brought up, he joked that second-half surges could be attributed to “slow starts and then picking it up.
“I don’t know,” he added. “It’s something that we actually talked about. What if we actually got something going in the first quarter, how different maybe some of these games would be?”
Gase said his players “are in great shape and they stay aggressive and they don’t let a couple of bad things early affect them.”
Example: The Jets scored a touchdown on their first possession, a 75-yard drive, and were quickly marching toward another score when Cameron Wake burst in for a strip-sack that Ndamukong Suh recovered. It was a turning point. Once the avalanche of Dolphins points started, Suh and Wake turned it up even more.
Guard Jermon Bushrod said he considers himself lucky to have Suh and Wake on his side. Jets offensive linemen?
“That’s a tough situation to be in, man,” Bushrod said. “You’re down a couple of scores. It’s Wake, it’s Suh, it’s (Andre) Branch. All of them are just beasts.”
Wake quickly added an interception, the first of his NFL career. He became the first Dolphin since Jason Taylor in 2006 to force a fumble and make an interception in the same game. Gase described Wake in Taylor-like terms.
“When you watch him in a game, in my head, I almost feel like he has got like 30 sacks, because I feel like I see him doing his sack dance like five times a game,” Gase said. “The guy is unbelievable. He finds a way to make huge plays at the most critical situations of the game. He’s one of those great players that has that ability to where he knows it’s the right time where something amps up in him and he makes a play. That’s what you need out of your playmakers.”
Wake finished with two tackles, a sack, three quarterback hits, a pass defensed and the forced fumble. Suh had five tackles, three tackles for loss and the recovery. In short: A case could be made it was the best combined performance the duo has had in their two seasons together.
The Dolphins went into the season with Wake on a snap count but realized that at age 34, he has plenty left. Saturday, he played 42 snaps. Suh was in on 60 snaps, or 79 percent of the 76 defensive plays.
“He reminds me of a Reggie White-type,” Maxwell said of Suh. “… I’m looking at him and I’m like, ‘This dude is huge.’ ”
Put it together and you have a Dolphins team that’s 9-5 — and still believing it’s not finished.