When you’re hot: Xavien Howard trending straight up for Miami Dolphins’ secondary

Xavien Howard makes an interception against the Patriots. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

(Note: This continues a series in Daily Dolphin spotlighting members of the team individually. In addition to reliving highlights and lowlights of the past season for each, we’ll provide analysis and criticism, plus take a look at how each player fits — or doesn’t fit — into the team’s plans for 2018.)

[RELATED: Don’t miss our exclusive photos from Dolphins OTAs in Davie]

CB Xavien Howard

Height, weight: 6-1, 196

College: Baylor

Age: Will be 25 this season

Experience: Third season, all with Dolphins

Acquired: Second-round pick in 2016

Contract: In third year of his $6.1 million rookie contract

Pro Football Focus rank: 92nd of 121

In 2017

Stats: Started every game; 48 tackles, one sack, four interceptions, 13 passes defensed

Notable moments: INTs came in bunches, with two vs. Broncos and two in the home game vs. Patriots

Straight talk: Can momentum that a young player has going for him late one season carry over into the next season?

The Dolphins certainly hope so.

Howard didn’t get off to the best of starts last year but displayed a key trait for a cornerback — he forgot about all that — to put up some stunning performances as the weather turned cold.

Howard recorded the first two interceptions of his career against Denver, then followed with two more against Tom Brady and the Patriots, which was even more impressive in two ways:

1. He’s the first Dolphin with multiple interceptions in consecutive games.

2. He played the Patriots game while puking his guts out on the sideline because of the flu. “I thought he was going to die,” said safety Walt Aikens, who should know because, in his words, “I was in the splash zone.”

Howard, who earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for the Patriots game, said he realized it was time to start trusting himself and taking chances when opportunities arose.

“Not thinking,” said Howard, who relied on strength and his closing ability with the ball in the air to pick off Brady. “Just going out there and playing.”

“You could tell him that I said it’s about time,” Cameron Wake said.

Of course, 1 1/2 seasons isn’t a long time for a cornerback to develop (not to mention that Howard missed half his rookie year with knee problems). While double-digit interceptions is a bit much to ask of anybody in Year 3, continued growth is realistic for Howard and if that happens, a healthy second contract will start to come into focus.

“The more he plays, the longer he plays, the tighter the coverage is going to get … the faster he’ll get as far as being able to break up some of these passes,” coach Adam Gase said. “Guys get so frustrated with young corners or the kid themselves gets down on themselves because balls are completed on them. They get better with time if you stick with them and you don’t allow their confidence to waver.”

Prospects for 2018

Howard’s confidence should be at an all-time high entering the season.

Any concerns the Dolphins may have had over his extended absence in 2016 should have been erased by what he did against New England. Keep in mind, he required two bags of IV fluids and was drinking Pedialyte but still suited up and played extremely well, worthy of the Michael Jordan seal of approval.

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After rough 2017 season, Dolphins secondary aims to be among NFL’s best

How good can Reshad Jones’ crew be in 2018? (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Few teams were easier to pass against than the Dolphins last year, and their defensive backs are insistent on changing that.

Looking around that corner of the locker room, there seems like there should be enough talent to turn things around. Miami has three promising options at safety, plus a host of good cornerbacks bent on becoming great.

The problem is that most of those players were here last year when the Dolphins finished bottom-10 in the NFL in opponent passer rating (94.8) and completion percentage (64.2). The total damage, 225 yards per game, was 16th in the league, but that number likely would’ve been worse had the team not spent most of the year trailing.

[RELATED: Don’t miss our exclusive photos from Dolphins OTAs]

“I think we gave up too many big plays last year,” safety T.J. McDonald said. “That’s the biggest thing you don’t want to do is let the ball get over your head. Going into this season, that’s a big emphasis for us.

“We’re just working. We want to be the best that we can be. We want to be the best in the league. We’re putting the time in right now.”
It didn’t help the secondary that the defensive line was unable to put much pressure on opposing quarterbacks and finished 26th in the league with 30 sacks. The defensive backs’ jobs will become significantly easier if Miami’s redesign up front, mainly the addition of Robert Quinn.

In coverage, the Dolphins have McDonald and Reshad Jones returning as the starting safeties along with first-round pick Minkah Fitzpatrick. They also have Xavien Howard angling to become a true No. 1 cornerback, plus Cordrea Tankersley, Tony Lippett and Bobby McCain.

They’re guided by new leadership, too, with the arrival of defensive backs coach Tony Oden and assistant Renaldo Hill.

McDonald has already seen strides from the defense in the first two weeks of Organized Team Activities.

“We’re just hungry,” he said. “Our camaraderie as a group is better, I feel like. I feel like we’re growing week by week. We’re working harder than we did last year. All the guys can feel the upping the momentum through practice. We’re setting the standard right now. That can only pay off in the future.”

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Dolphins CB Xavien Howard poised to prove himself as ‘top corner’

Xavien Howard needs to be a true No. 1 cornerback. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE — Xavien Howard knows it’s time.

The Dolphins took him No. 38 overall three years ago with the thought that he’d be a star cornerback, and there are no more qualifiers as he works toward the upcoming season. There won’t be explanations that he’s still learning or doesn’t have enough game experience. He’s been around, he’s been very good at points and now he needs to put it all together.

“I believe I can be a top corner in the league just going out there and really just playing,” he said after today’s Organized Team Activity session. “So, I’d just say just going out there and doing me.”

Howard has good reason to be confident after a sophomore season that was full of promise. He stayed healthy, which was big after playing just seven games as a rookie, and had four interceptions, 13 pass breakups and 42 tackles.

The way he finished the year prompted optimism throughout the organization, and his most memorable performance came during Miami’s biggest win over the season. In the Monday Night Football upset of the Patriots, Howard played through a case of the flu and intercepted Tom Brady twice.

A big part of that progress was getting better at press coverage and jamming receivers at the line, something defensive coordinator Matt Burke has been imploring his corners to do more often.

As Howard starts to look like more of a veteran cornerback, his emergence would be a huge breakthrough for the rebuilt Dolphins defense.

“He’s getting after it,” safety Reshad Jones said. “He’s out there trying to make plays for us. He’s getting more knowledge of the game and seeing things different. He is recognizing formations and different things like that.”

Howard said he’s much quicker at reading offensive schemes than he was as a rookie and has a better understanding of how to study quarterbacks.

“Stuff that I was doing in college I can’t do in the league,” he said. “You see different receivers and stuff like that. Really, I’m just learning the game and knowing what I can do, knowing what I’m best at and just sticking to that instead of trying to do everything else.

“In college, I wasn’t really watching film and stuff like that. I was just going on my athletic ability; but in the league, it’s a different level.”

The cornerback crew of Howard, Cordrea Tankersley, Bobby McCain and Tony Lippett could develop into an above-average unit, and there’s a lot to like about safeties Jones, T.J. McDonald and Minkah Fitzpatrick. Tightening up the secondary would solve a lot of Miami’s defensive issues.

That starts with Howard, who has to be capable of handling the opposition’s best receiver. If the Dolphins can’t trust him with that responsibility, the whole plan looks shaky.

They also need some evidence from Howard that he’s worth investing in beyond the next two seasons. His rookie contract ends after 2019, which puts him in position to earn an extension after this year.

“It’s a big season for me and the team,” Howard said.

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Miami Dolphins feeling confident in cornerback situation for 2018 season

Xavien Howard is the crown jewel of the Dolphins’ cornerbacks. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

MIAMI GARDENS—No other position on the Dolphins’ roster has been a more volatile stock than the cornerbacks. From moment to moment, they go from looking like one of the deeper units on the team to one of its chief liabilities.

The group is surging, at least it appears that way, after some developments late last season gave Miami cause for optimism.

Second-year man Xavien Howard looks ready to be a No. 1 corner who can shadow the opponent’s top threat, Cordrea Tankersley held his own as a rookie and slot corner Bobby McCain is as reliable as ever. Add in the return of 2016 starter Tony Lippett, and the Dolphins look like they have what they need.

“We have a great room and we have a lot of talented guys, a lot of guys that can play good football,” McCain said at the organization’s annual Dolphins Cancer Challenge last weekend. “It’s exciting to have talent, and you can never go wrong with too many corners.”

That’s something coach Adam Gase says often, which means the idea of pursuing cornerbacks in free agency or taking one in the upcoming draft can’t be ruled out.

And even if the Dolphins do feel confident in their personnel, they have concerns. Gase and defensive coordinator Matt Burke fired defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, who had been with the team since 2012, and replaced him with Tony Oden. Longtime NFL safety Renaldo Hill also joined the staff as Oden’s assistant.

Miami’s pass defense was mediocre or worse for most of last season, but diagnosing the problems goes deeper than analyzing the cornerbacks. A better pass rush would’ve lessened the burden on them in coverage, and they could’ve used more help behind them from the safeties.

Taking all of that into account, the Dolphins were middle of the pack in total pass defense, but that number likely would’ve been somewhat worse if not for the fact that they spent so much time trailing. Miami allowed 7.2 yards per attempt, which was tied for ninth-worst in the league.

The Dolphins also allowed a 94.8 passer rating, fifth-highest in the NFL, and managed to get their hands on a mere nine interceptions. That’s one pick every 58.7 attempts, and it was a major factor in the team’s minus-14 turnover differential. Only Denver and Cleveland were worse.

“Just being consistent and winning ballgames,” McCain said when asked what the next step for his unit is. “Doing whatever it takes—no matter if it’s turnovers or regardless of what it is. As a secondary, we’re going to have a big part in that.”

Howard illustrated the group’s potential impact beautifully with his two-interception performance in the upset of New England late in the year.

In a game in which the Dolphins held on to win by a touchdown, both of his picks were in Miami territory, taking scoring chances away from the Patriots, and they led to a touchdown and a field goal. At minimum, that was a 16-point swing in his team’s favor on a night when it was badly needed.

Howard, a second-round pick in 2016, led the Dolphins with four interceptions (coming over back-to-back games) for the year. McCain and safety Reshad Jones each had two, and McDonald added one. That was it. In 10 of 16 games, Miami did not intercept a pass.

Howard finished the year with 13 pass breakups, 48 tackles and a sack. He had a near-perfect night against Brandin Cooks to beat the Patriots, and the week before ran home with a pick-six against Denver.

“That’s my boy,” Lippett said. He stepped up a lot. He grew up this year. He made plays that we know he can make and we’ve seen him make plenty of times (in practice). I was happy for him.”

Pro Football Focus rated him the 92nd-best corner in the league for the season, but that was weighted by his inconsistency early. His overall trajectory is trending upwardly, and he’s still just 24 years old with 22 career starts.

He’ll be locked into one starting cornerback spot, and the other likely will be a battle between Lippett and Tankersley. Ideally for Miami, it’ll be a tough decision between the two, plus a few quality options behind them.

“I think we’re a good, young group,” Lippett said. “We’re gonna compete and make each other better and help each other out. We’re committed to winning. That’s the main thing.”

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Dolphins CB Xavien Howard had flu during two-interception game vs. Patriots

Xavien Howard’s tremendous game came under brutal conditions. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE—The best game of Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard’s career came on a night he spent vomiting on the sideline because of the flu.

Howard was everywhere in Miami’s 27-20 victory over the Patriots and intercepted Tom Brady twice despite being miserable the entire day.

“Yeah, I was throwing up mostly like water,” he said after today’s practice. “And I took some Pedialite, so I was just throwing it up.”

He came down with the illness Monday morning at the team hotel and did everything he could to even consider playing that night. He was administered two bags of intravenous fluids, and none of that really helped. He played nonetheless.

Dolphins safety Walt Aikens, whose locker is right next to Howard’s, described it as a bad scene.

“Yeah, front row seat,” Aikens said. “It was rough. He was throwing up his guts. I thought he was going to die. It was kind of scary. I was in the splash zone. He balled out, though. Next time he gets sick, I’ll know not to care about him, because he’ll be all right for the game.”

Aikens and the rest of the secondary have been yelling “flu game” at Howard all week in reference to Michael Jordan’s legendary performance while languishing in the 1997 NBA Finals.

Beyond the two picks, Howard was exceptional in coverage on New England No. 1 receiver Brandin Cooks. Cooks managed just one catch for 38 yards out of seven targets, and Howard was credited with an additional pass breakup. He defended several other passes thrown his way.

“He was in bad shape, man, but he pulled it out,” Aikens said. “He said he was going to be all right and he was good. He showed up.”

Howard was still sick today, but said he’s feeling “a little better” and will play Sunday at Buffalo.

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How the Dolphins went 11 for 11 stopping Tom Brady on third downs

Xavien Howard was incredible against the Patriots. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

DAVIE–This was the best anyone’s ever done against Tom Brady when it comes to stopping him on third downs.

The Dolphins‘ defense came through on 11 of 11 third-down tries by New England in their 27-20 upset Monday, marking the first time since 1991 that the Patriots failed to convert a single third down in a game. (The Patriots had two “conversions” on penalties, but the league doesn’t count those in this statistic.) The last time Miami did shut out an opponent on third downs was in 2011, when it did it to the Bills twice.

That keeps up a nice hot streak for the Dolphins, who held the Broncos to 1 for 13 on third downs the week before.

Monday’s performance was impressive enough considering it came against Brady and the No. 3 offense in the NFL, but New England was also fourth in the league in third-down conversion success rate at 44.9 percent.

Miami’s success started with the fact that it played well on first and second down. On the Patriots’ 11 third-down conversion tries, their average distance to go was 12.2 yards. Putting someone in third-and-12 all night is a good blueprint for winning.

There were some outstanding plays by the Dolphins–none more so than Xavien Howard–on third down throughout the game. Here’s a look at what happened on all 11 of New England’s attempts.


1. First quarter, third and 10, New England 25-yard line, 8:23 remaining
Brady had a lot of time in the pocket here, but forced one to Brandin Cooks in extremely tough coverage. Howard picked him off, and the Dolphins drove 34 yards for a field goal afterward.


2. First quarter, third and eight, New England 27-yard line, 3:04 remaining
Another play where Brady tried to fit a pass where there was no room. This time it was Alterraun Verner with a great pass breakup on Chris Hogan.


3. Second quarter, third and four, New England 41-yard line, 12:06 remaining
Brady completed a short pass to running back Rex Burkhead, but linebacker Kiko Alonso got to him immediately to keep him from reaching the 45 (that’s the yard line by Alonso’s left foot in the photo) and Reshad Jones helped him finish the tackle with a big hit. Burkhead came up a yard short, and New England punted.


4. Second quarter, third and three, Miami 29-yard line, 0:46 remaining
This was essentially a run play with Brady making a quick shovel pass to running back James White. He was met by a swarm of Alonso, T.J. McDonald and Verner and went down at the 28, two yards short of the first down. New England kicked a field goal on that drive to move within 13-10.


5. Third quarter, third and 16, New England 14-yard line, 13:40 remaining
This was the play of the night. With Brady threatening to put the Patriots back on top with a long heave for Cooks, Howard somehow made up ground at last possible moment to run away with the interception. He said he was flat-out beat on the play and wasn’t sure how he got there. Brady underthrew the ball slightly, which gave him a chance. Howard returned it to the Patriots’ 46, and Miami scored a touchdown for a 20-10 lead two minutes later.


6. Third quarter, third and one, New England 29-yard line, 9:17 remaining
After Cameron Wake’s neutral zone infraction took this from third and six to third and one, Howard bailed the Dolphins out with another great pass breakup on Cooks. Like most of the night, he was all over him.


7. Third quarter, third and nine, New England 33-yard line, 3:40 remaining
This was the lucky one. Verner got spun around at the line of scrimmage and fell well behind Hogan down the right sideline, but Brady overthrew him. If the Dolphins get credit for anything on this, it’s Jones making it at least a tougher throw with his coverage over the top.


8. Fourth quarter, third and eight, New England 17-yard line, 11:05 remaining
Ndamukong Suh came up with a sack here, but rookie Charles Harris was the first one to break into New England’s backfield. Harris beat his man and forced Brady to move forward to get away from him, sending him right into Suh’s reach.


9. Fourth quarter, third and four, New England 25-yard line, 7:17 remaining
Brady still hadn’t accepted that this wasn’t a night to try Howard. He went back to Cooks here, but Howard had him locked up again (bottom left corner of the frame). The pass was incomplete, and New England punted.


10. Fourth quarter, third and 20, New England 12-yard line, 4:58 remaining
Nothing amazing here, just good prevent defense by Miami on a third and long. The best option Brady saw was Danny Amendola, who was 11 yards short of the first down and wasn’t going to get much with Jones zeroing in on him.


11. Fourth quarter, third and goal, Miami 15-yard line, 1:02 remaining
When the Dolphins coaches talk about defensive tackle Jordan Phillips having a good year, this play is what they mean. Andre Branch went inside, and Phillips took the outside and pressured Brady into throwing sooner than he wanted. He threw to Amendola at the three-yard line, which gave him little chance of reaching the end zone, but Howard’s coverage was too good again and it went incomplete. New England opted for the field goal to pull within 27-20, but couldn’t recover the onsides kick and the game was over.

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Win over Denver two weeks ago gave Dolphins their swagger back

The Dolphins flexed on Denver, then did it to New England. (AP)

DAVIE—It seemed like nothing at the time, just a meaningless slap fight between two teams going nowhere. But for the Dolphins, it might have been the turning point of their season.

When they blasted Denver 35-9 two weeks ago, it was the first time all season Miami had seen its plans materialize on the field in a game. It broke the team out of its five-game losing streak, and gave the players a newfound belief that they were capable of implementing exactly what they worked on during the week.

That boost changed everything as they prepared for the Monday Night Football game against New England.

“When we went through practice last week, there was a different way about how we were at practice,” coach Adam Gase said. “There was no change in effort or execution or anything like that, but it seemed like guys were walking around different, like they felt good about what we had going on and how they were going to perform.”

The Dolphins carried that poise into the Patriots game and immediately showed they were up for the immense challenge.

Miami’s first quarter was brilliant, which was a talking point throughout the leadup to the game given that New England had double-digit leads early in each of the previous three meetings. The Dolphins came away with field goals on its first two possessions, and their defense completely shut down Tom Brady.

The Patriots ended the first quarter with two yards of total offense, and Brady was 0 for 4 with an interception.

Everything clicked for Miami, just as it had the previous week against the Broncos. Jay Cutler made headway in the medium- and long-range passing game, Kenyan Drake was excellent, the defensive line hurried Brady into his worst performance of the year and Xavien Howard got his hands on two picks.

The defense had two sacks, six quarterback hits and seven pass breakups. The offense averaged 5.2 yards per play and was turnover-free for the first time since the opener.

It felt a lot like the way the Dolphins played against Denver, only they were able to maintain it against a far better opponent.

“Anytime you get in a situation where you’ve lost five games in a row, no matter how you win that game, it’s nice to win a game,” Gase said of the breakthrough against the Broncos. “And then confidence can really build throughout a week the next week. I think that’s really what happened for us.”

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‘It’s about time’: Xavien Howard’s 4 interceptions in 2 games is a first for a Miami Dolphins CB

Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard intercepts a pass intended for New England’s Brandin Cooks. (Allen Eyestone / The Palm Beach Post)

MIAMI GARDENS — This is what it looks like when an NFL player breaks out. This is what it looks like when a player who never lacked confidence in himself, but never inspired much confidence for fans, gets to say I told you so.

No, as boisterous Dolphins teammates were celebrating that 27-20 upset of the New England Patriots in the wee hours Tuesday morning, cornerback Xavien Howard didn’t actually come out and say that.

So his teammates did.

“Everybody wrote him off but us,” defensive end Andre Branch said. “That’s exactly what’s been going on. Just like they did with Jordan Phillips. But at the end of the day, those two have skills and unlimited talent and we know exactly who they are. And they’re just showing the world.”

Xavien Howard went 18 regular-season games into his NFL career without an interception. He has four in the past two games, becoming the first Dolphins cornerback with multiple interceptions in consecutive games. They include two more when Tom Brady trusted receiver Brandin Cooks to make contested catches against Howard.

Instead, those two footballs ended up in the hands of Howard and he never let go. You intercept possibly the greatest quarterback ever twice in prime time, you can bet they’d have to pry your fingers away from those footballs.

“Oh yeah,” Howard said on his newest keepsakes. “Both of them.”

This was about the time that Howard was slipping on a pair of chrome shoes. You shine as much as Howard did on national TV, you leave the Crocs to somebody else. You put on your chrome shoes and you dare anybody to say a word.

Dressing a couple of lockers over was cornerback Bobby McCain, who climbed on the benches to holler at Howard over a pack of reporters.

“Don’t throw my way! Don’t throw my way!” McCain yelled.

Howard grinned.

Next to McCain was safety Reshad Jones, who knows something about Pro Bowl-caliber coverage.

“He could be one of the best corners in the league,” Jones said.

Howard heard that, too.

“He played a lot of football and I respect him a lot,” Howard said. “Just going out there, the expectations that he has and I have for myself, just going out there and taking the challenge.”

Brady was uncharacteristically off target all night, completing just 24-of-43 for 233 yards and a 59.5 passer rating. But he was especially off target when looking for Cooks, who was tailed by Howard all evening. Brady targeted Cooks seven times. Cooks had one reception for 38 yards. The only other success New England had against Howard was a pass interference penalty on the Miami 3 that led to a touchdown.

Howard set the tone for the Dolphins twice over. On New England’s third snap of the game, Howard was in man coverage on the outside against Cooks. Brady lofted a deep one even though Howard had his man stride for stride. Howard used his strength, fending off Cooks with his left arm to maintain inside position before cradling the pass, setting up a field goal.

The third snap of the second half wasn’t much different. Brady had just been sacked on a bull rush by Phillips and, perhaps with frustration setting in, tested Howard deep again. Cooks had two steps but Howard closed the gap with the ball in the air, then came flying across the picture to intercept.

“That is one of the great interceptions you will see,” ESPN analyst Jon Gruden said.

“I’m just feeding off the last game, watching film and stuff like that,” said Howard, who had a pick-six last week against Denver. “I knew they were going to try to come at me and the weakness that I showed on film.”

With the other starting corner, Cordrea Tankersley, out with shoulder and ankle injuries, it was imperative someone in the secondary pick up the slack against the league’s No. 1 offense.

“X’s confidence is really getting up there,” coach Adam Gase said. “He has had two really good games in a row. It’s good to see him really feeling it.”

Defensive end Cameron Wake was more blunt.

“From the moment he got on campus last year, I knew the ability he had, the type of mentality and what he could bring to the table,” Wake said. “You could tell him that I said it’s about time.”

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Dolphins make all the misery worth it with 27-20 upset of Patriots

Jay Cutler was outstanding against the Patriots. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

MIAMI GARDENS — This makes it all worth it.

A Dolphins season full of shakeups and setbacks culminated in a shocking 27-20 upset of the Patriots on Monday Night Football that felt like the wildest party this team has thrown in years. Hard Rock Stadium, where the chants are usually calling for the backup quarterback, thundered with “Let’s go Dolphins.”

A close loss would’ve been enough to merit calling this progress, but Miami took it one step further with one of the biggest upsets of the season as an 11-point underdog. The Dolphins had the lead all night with the exception of about three minutes in the second quarter and bowed up when Tom Brady swiped at them late in the game.

This doesn’t make the Dolphins a good team, it doesn’t mean they’re inching closer to New England and all it does playoffs-wise is keep their already slim hopes in play with three games remaining. But none of that matters.

This was the best game they’ve played under Adam Gase, and everybody in aqua deserved it. The players who have endured 13 straight weeks without a bye have been wrecking their bodies just for a celebration like this, and the fans who somehow forced themselves to keep watching through five-game losing streak earned some must-see TV.

The whole country must have enjoyed it, really, considering the terrible football they were subjected to during the Dolphins’ previous national games.

This is the game everyone, especially Bill Belichick, will remember from the 2017 Dolphins.

There was drama from the onset as the Dolphins (6-7) stirred memories of their legendary 1985 Monday Night Football win over Chicago—almost 32 years ago to the day—with their retro uniforms under the lights.

There was nonstop tension, which surely played tricks on Miami fans’ stomachs but is exactly why people watch football in the first place. Anyone who bit their fingernails through the full three-plus hours knows it didn’t feel anywhere near as comfortable as that final score might indicate.

Thrill and dread were intertwined as Jay Cutler marched the Dolphins into scoring range on their first two possessions and came away with field goals, sparking electricity in a stadium still secretly worried that six points wasn’t enough payoff for all that headway.

The confidence teetered again as New England (10-3) took a 7-6 lead in the second quarter, fell behind again, then pulled back within 13-10 at halftime. Every moment was a test to see if Miami could hold off what felt like the inevitable crushing disappointment this franchise has so frequently delivered over the last 40-something years.

Some unlikely characters emerged to make sure that didn’t happen.

Cutler, one of the least popular players with this fanbase, was tremendous.

He’s been outplayed by nearly every quarterback he’s faced this year, but schooled Brady in the art of quarterbacking by completing 25 of 38 passes for 263 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions (albeit several close calls) for a 112.1 passer rating. In 150 career games, this is one of the top 20 he’s ever played.

Not long ago, it looked like there was no route to the field for second-year running back Kenyan Drake. Now he’s indispensable. After grinding out 30 yards on nine carries in the first quarter, he rolled to 114 on 25.

Drake and Cutler closed out the game by leading a modest drive that ended in a punt but ran enough clock to bury the Patriots. They got the ball back at their own 23, down 10 with 2:24 remaining.

Then there’s Xavien Howard, whose inconsistency at cornerback brought into question whether he’s as good as the Dolphins thought when they drafted him in the second round last year. A month ago, Pro Football Focus ranked him the 115th-best corner in the league, but he’s come on strong lately and was exceptional against the Patriots.

It was Howard who answered when Brady launched one about 75 yards for Brandin Cooks on the first series after the half. Cooks looked like he might catch it right on time and race away for a touchdown, but Howard closed perfectly for an over-the-shoulder interception and ran it back to the New England 46.

It was his second interception of the game, fourth in the last two, and it set Miami up for a quick scoring drive. In a matter of minutes, the Dolphins went from nearly surrendering their lead to surging ahead 20-10.

The Miami defense as a whole played a better game than anyone could’ve reasonably thought possible. That group shut down Brady down and forced him into his worst game of an otherwise sparkling season. He failed to convert a single third down in 11 tries and trudged off the field with a meager 59.5 passer rating.

New England, which arrived as the No. 3 offense in the league, stomped off the field at the end of the first quarter with two total yards. Those came on one rush by Rex Burkhead. That was all the Patriots could get on a Dolphins defense that was on pace to give up one of the gaudiest rushing totals in franchise history.

In the fourth quarter, with Brady desperately firing away to overcome a 17-point deficit, Miami stopped him on three of the last four possessions to hang on for the win.

The natural question after the Dolphins put forward an effort like this is why they can’t replicate it every week, but every week doesn’t have the perfect confluence of the hated nemesis coming to town, a national TV audience and the season wobbling on the brink of oblivion.

Miami can’t play like this every game, because every game isn’t this. But for one night, this team was incredible.

[Ndamukong Suh has it out for Patriots QB Tom Brady]

[What’s Jay Cutler doing behind the scenes to get DeVante Parker out of his funk?]

[Adam Gase has his finger on exactly what’s gone wrong vs. New England Patriots]

[RELATED: Exclusive photos from the Dolphins’ huge MNF win over the Patriots]

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5 instant takeaways: Miami Dolphins 35, Denver Broncos 9

Xavien Howard had two interceptions, including a pick-six. (Allen Eyestone/The Post)

MIAMI GARDENS—The Dolphins unloaded weeks’ worth of frustration on the Broncos to break out of their five-game funk with a 35-9 victory at Hard Rock Stadium.

The 35 points were the most Miami has scored this year and they came every imaginable way. The Dolphins got two safeties for the first time in franchise history, they threw for a touchdown, ran for a touchdown and came up with a pick-six.

Here are five quick takeaways from a feel-good afternoon in South Florida:

1. The Broncos are so, so bad.
Finally, the Dolphins got a true gimme. The Jets turned out to be tougher than anyone thought, and the Buccaneers were surprisingly decent, but the Broncos were as advertised. They looked every part of a team that had lost seven straight, has no quarterback and has committed the second-most turnovers in the NFL. This was a franchise that was in the Super Bowl two years ago and still managed to go 9-7 last season. Denver is a total wreck and might very well go winless the rest of the year, so keep some perspective when celebrating this victory.

2. Kenyan Drake wanted this and he better be ready for it.
Without Damien Williams, Drake is the only proven option for the Dolphins at running back. He got the ball six times out of 11 plays on the opening drive and totaled 23 carries and three catches for a combined yardage of 141. Williams has a significant shoulder injury, and there’s no timetable for his return at this point, so Drake will likely have to manage this type of workload for another week or so. That’s good news for him as he tries to prove himself as premiere NFL running back.

3. The more Jay Cutler and Matt Moore play, the more everyone misses Ryan Tannehill.
The best thing to be said about Miami’s quarterback situation right now is that it’s better than Denver’s. When Cutler plays, everyone wants Moore. When Moore plays, everyone wants Cutler back. The real answer is Tannehill, who can’t get back from his knee injury soon enough. Cutler completed 18 of 31 passes for 235 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, which wasn’t great but also wasn’t terrible. That’s what he is: a middling, old quarterback who’s just OK. The Dolphins need better than that if they want to compete next year, and a healthy Tannehill can deliver it.

4. Funny how the defense looks a lot better against Denver than New England.
Interceptions, safeties, sacks—the Dolphins can do it all when they’re facing a team as bad as the Broncos. They came in as one of the worst offenses in the league, and Miami cashed in with three takeaways, including a pick-six and another interception by Xavien Howard. The Dolphins held Denver to 274total yards and destroyed confused looking quarterback Trevor Siemian. They stuck him with a final line of 20-for-42 passing, 219 yards, no touchdowns, three interceptions and a 33.7 passer rating. Miami also stopped the Broncos on their first 11 third-down conversion tries and 14 of 15 overall.

5. Adam Gase still has this team thinking playoffs.
It might sound absurd to everyone outside the Dolphins’ facility, but this team hasn’t given up on a return trip to the playoffs. The win over Denver keeps them two games behind sixth-place Baltimore with four games to play (keep him mind that the Ravens have the head-to-head edge by virtue of their 40-0 win in October) and gives them a chance to go 9-7 if they run the table. Winning out is far-fetched considering New England comes to town next, but even if this team can scrape its way to 8-8 that would be a good accomplishment considering everything that’s gone against Miami this year.

[Dolphins coach Adam Gase takes a big risk with his running backs]

[Broncos, Dolphins have deep roots in each other’s sidelines]

[A conversation with The Jupiter Juggernaut]

[RELATED: Exclusive photo gallery from the Dolphins’ big win over the Broncos]

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