MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — After it was over, there were all the usual questions. Every loss begs for answers. This one was pleading for them. It had been more than four years since the Miami Dolphins had scored more than 35 points in four quarters of football. They’d played 14 straight games without reaching 400 yards of total offense. Twelve of those games had ended in losses, including nine of the 11 they’d played this year. The Dolphins weren’t simply a bad NFL team. They were an organization that had long ago given up on its season.
And so, in a stunned visitors locker room, the search began. All along the back wall, the cameras and microphones shuffled, player to player, stall to stall. Did they do something that surprised you? Did you take them lightly? Was it the energy? The intensity? The hot weather?
“Man,” Malcolm Jenkins said, “I don’t give a ---- about the climate.”
He wasn’t lying. The Eagles’ 37-31 loss wasn’t attributable to any of those things. It was a matter of talent. Against a 2-9 team, with first place on the line, the Eagles were consistently outcoached and outmanned.
Why did they have such a hard time keeping the ball out of DeVante Parker’s hands? Because the Eagles did not have talent that was equal to the task. Sure, when they sit down and review the film, they will see situations where different coverages could have helped. Such is the nature of hindsight. It will always be undefeated. But the fact of the matter is there were plays to be made.
Ronald Darby made the first one, intercepting Ryan Fitzpatrick on the first play of the game. Parker made the rest. Twice, Fitzpatrick threw a deep ball up for grabs with Darby in the vicinity. Twice, it was Parker who came down with the catch. The first went for a 43-yard touchdown on fourth-and-4. The second was a 42-yard jump ball on third-and-13 that put the Dolphins in position to take a 14-13 lead.
“I’ve just got to finish," Darby said. “It goes like that sometimes, but ain’t no excuse. I’ve got to find a way to finish and make a play on the ball.”
That is more or less how it went for the rest of the game. The Dolphins entered the day with 18 offensive touchdowns on the season. From the second quarter to the fourth quarter, the Eagles allowed them to score five on five drives. Parker finished with seven catches for 159 yards and two touchdowns. Fitzpatrick completed 27-of-39 passes for 365 yards.
There were moments when you simply had to give the Dolphins credit. Right around the time their punter completed a touchdown pass to their kicker, you got the sense that the Eagles might be in trouble. This was an afternoon when they ran into an opponent that made all of its plays.
The discouraging thing is that the Eagles made none of their own. Not on defense, at least. Early in the fourth quarter, they had Miami pinned on its 4-yard line, and Darby immediately allowed them to escape with an easy 8-yard pitch-and-catch from Fitzpatrick to Parker on first down. From there, Miami drove the rest of the way down the field, twice converting on third down.
It’s simple, really: If the Eagles have anything close to the roster that they believe, this was a game where their talent should have prevailed. Fitzpatrick should have faced far more pressure than he did. At least one of his litany of drive-extending passes late in the game should have been knocked away. Instead, time and again, the Eagles were the losers of a one-on-one battle. Albert Wilson against Avonte Maddox: a 13-yard catch on third-and-10 with the fourth-quarter clock ticking away. Parker against Jalen Mills: a 34-yard catch down to the Eagles’ 15-yard line. Parker against Darby, again: an 8-yard slant on fourth-and-1.
“I felt horrible,” Darby said. “It was one of my worst performances.”
Things weren’t nearly as bad on the offensive side. Still, the Eagles looked like a shell of what they at one point believed themselves to be. The numbers were fine: Carson Wentz threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns. Alshon Jeffery caught nine passes for 137 yards. Yet 17 of their 31 points came on drives that began in Dolphins territory. Not until late in the game did they have any success throwing downfield. On their first nine drives, they averaged 5 yards per play.
The standings say the season isn’t over. The Cowboys still have games against the Rams and Bears remaining. It is well within the realm of possibility that the division is decided when the Eagles host Dallas in a couple of weeks.
Yet a loss like Sunday’s is enough to turn the rest of this season into a shrug. And it’s enough to make you wonder whether one offseason is enough to fix what ails this team. The Eagles need a deep threat who can stay healthy for a 16-game season. They need a slot receiver who can consistently make plays in the middle of the field. They need a full season of games like Jeffery produced against the Dolphins. They could need a new center, and a new left tackle. Jenkins will be pushing 33 years old, Brandon Graham 32. And they most certainly need to come up with a solution for their yearly debacle at the cornerback position.
As the autopsy was winding down in the postgame locker room, somebody asked Wentz why the Eagles have struggled so much this season.
“It’s really hard to say,” the quarterback answered. “Every game is different, but at the end of the day, we’re not making enough plays in critical situations to win ballgames."