Usually, the fourth quarter is when the Falcons kick someone in the teeth and wrestle away a victory.
That’s been their modus operandi with quarterback Matt “Matty Ice” Ryan at the controls since 2008.
But on this Sunday, Miami’s second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill “out-Iced” Ryan and the Falcons as he drove the Dolphins to victory in the final minutes to post a 27-23 win before a dazzled crowd of 70,660 at Sun Life Stadium.
The upstart Dolphins, who remained undefeated at 3-0, rallied from a double-digit deficit and went ahead with 38 seconds to play. Tannehill, after a play-action fake, tossed a soft pass over the head of linebacker Stephen Nicholas and into the arms of tight end Dion Sims for the score.
“It was up there for a while,” Nicholas said of the tightly lofted pass. “He made a good catch.”
The Falcons’ last-ditch effort ended with Ryan throwing an interception to Miami safety Jimmy Wilson with 26 seconds left.
The Falcons, who played without five starters because of injuries, turned in a gutsy performance, but came up short. They dropped to 1-2, the worst start in the Mike Smith-Thomas Dimitroff era.
“I knew that we had to play well in the fourth quarter to beat those guys because they are so good late,” said Miami offensive tackle Tyson Clabo, a former Falcon. “We controlled the ball. I think we took it with over four minutes, and they didn’t get it back until there was like 40 seconds left or something like that. That was key because you don’t want (Ryan) to have time to do what he does really well.”
The Falcons, the defending NFC South champs who went to the NFC Championship game last season, are scrambling out of the gate.
“We’ve been on the right end of it a lot of times in the five years that I’ve been here,” said Ryan, who’s led the Falcons to 22 fourth-quarter victories. “I give credit to Miami as they fought the entire day. … We’re on the wrong side of it now.”
Despite their game effort, the Falcons were not in a pleasant mood.
“This is a game where we had a ton of opportunities to win the game,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. He was upset with the red-zone inefficiency of the offense (2-of-5, 40 percent) and defense (3-of-3, 100 percent) and the team’s two turnovers.
“We’ve got to get the ball in the end zone,” Smith said. “We kicked way too many field goals. I thought that we played well in spurts.”
This was the fifth consecutive game that the Falcons raced to a double-digit lead, and the fourth time they kicked it away.
The Falcons mounted leads of 17, 20, 10, 10 and 10 points over their past five games and have posted a 2-3 record in those games. They needed some last-minute heroics to defeat Seattle in the playoffs, and last week they scored late to hold off St. Louis.
“It’s becoming like a trend now,” left guard Justin Blalock said. “We have to find a way to keep our momentum going out there. We were moving the ball pretty good out there. We just have to be more consistent.”
Miami’s game-winning 13-play drive was particularly troubling after the defense had turned five sacks and had six quarterback hits.
Tannehill, showing the poise of, well, Ryan, drove the Dolphins 74 yards in 12 plays before hitting Sims. The Dolphins converted on three third downs during the drive as the defense blew another lead.
“Obviously, we didn’t get enough pressure,” Smith said. “We didn’t play tight-enough coverage. … We have to make those plays at the end of the ballgame.”
Thanks to a ball-controlling offense, the Falcons held a 13-10 lead at halftime. They opened the game with a crafty 14-play drive that covered 80 yards. Running back Jason Snelling scored on a 7-yard shovel-pass reception.
The Falcons’ defense started strong before fading late. The Falcons took a 20-10 lead after the defense set them up on the 12-yard line after Osi Umenyiora’s second sack. Defensive tackle Peria Jerry recovered the fumble on the play.
On third-and-2 from the 4, Miami cornerback Nolan Carroll was called for pass interference after breaking up a pass intended for Roddy White. The Falcons got the ball first-and-goal on the 1. After losing a yard on a run by Jacquizz Rodgers, Ryan found Levine Toilolo in the back of the end zone for a touchdown. Bryant’s kick made the score 20-10.
After the Falcons’ offense bogged down, Miami added a 50-yard field goal and then received a big turnover when Harry Douglas was hammered by Miami’s Don Jones on a punt return and fumbled. Miami’s John Denney recovered the fumble at the Falcons’ 19.
On third-and-9, Miami wide receiver Brian Hartline ran a nice route and was wide open in the end zone for a touchdown. Cornerback Marcus Trufant and safety Thomas DeCoud were the nearest defenders. Caleb Sturgis kick tied the score at 20-20.
“We were getting after them,” Nicholas said. “We did decent, but we just didn’t get the job done.”