For the first time since Week 4, the Dolphins came up on the short end with a 20-13 loss to the Broncos. Denver ran for 189 yards and sacked Dolphins quarterbacks six times to snap Miami's five-game winning streak.
The Dolphins mounted a furious rally in the fourth quarter sparked by yet another huge play by linebacker Andrew Van Ginkel. As Broncos running back Melvin Gordon surged towards the end zone in search of his third touchdown, Van Ginkel - amid four Dolphins defenders in relentless pursuit - punched the ball free just short of the goal line. Safety Eric Rowe recovered the ball and the Dolphins were 99 yards away from a game-tying score.
"This is a resilient group," Brian Flores said of the Van Ginkel play. "Things looked bleak there, we make a play, start to make a drive. If we put it into the end zone, we could perhaps tie the game."
"I was working off the edge and I came back and saw there were a couple of guys on him," Van Ginkel said of the forced fumble. "He was about to score so I wanted to do everything I could to get the ball out and give us a chance."
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Tua Tagovailoa on the previous possession and drove Miami deep into Denver territory with just under 90 seconds left to play. But an interception by Justin Simmons in the end zone put an end to the comeback bid as the Dolphins fell to 6-4 on the season.
After the game, Flores and Fitzpatrick discussed the decision to make the quarterback change.
"Tua wasn't injured," Dolphins Head Coach Brian Flores said. "We felt like it was the best move to try and win the game."
"This is Tua's team," Fitzpatrick said. "He's going to continue to get better and grow. My defined role right now is whatever 'Coach Flo' and the team needs out of me. That role changed today in trying to provide a spark but otherwise it's to support him and to help him grown and learn."
The game started with the same script Dolphins fans have grown accustomed to in recent weeks. Xavien Howard stepped in front of a Drew Lock pass on the third play from scrimmage for his sixth interception of the season, tied for the league lead with New England's J.C. Jackson. The Dolphins would finish the ensuing drive with a 3-yard pass from Tagovailoa to wide receiver DeVante Parker, helping Miami race out to a 7-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.
Denver quickly regained control with a swarming pass rush and dominant ground game. After back-to-back false starts pushed the Broncos into a second-and-20, they converted and finished off an 11-play drive powered by 47 yards on the ground, including a 14-yard run by quarterback Drew Lock on third-and-13.
"It wasn't good enough," Flores said of the run defense. "We have to do a better job on the edge. We have to do a better job of tackling. We have to do a better job of fighting pressure with pressure. We started the game decently but they made adjustments and we have to make better adjustments and play better."
"Any time the backs run like that and we can't defend it, it puts a lot of stress on our defense," Van Ginkel said.
The two teams exchanged second-quarter field goals to set the Broncos up with a two-minute opportunity, but that didn't change their offensive approach. A 25-yard run by Melvin Gordon got the drive started and a 7-yard run set up kicker Brandon McManus to give Denver a three-point halftime lead.
Miami's defense showed its teeth coming out of the locker room with a stand on fourth-and-1 backed up to their own 14-yard-line. Defensive tackle Raekwon Davis provided the initial surge before the calvary arrived to shut down the Gordon run. Linebacker Elandon Roberts was credited with the tackle amid a flurry of Dolphins defenders.
Another Broncos sack led to a quick three-and-out putting the Dolphins defense back on the field. After the game, Tagovailoa discussed the stalled drives of the offense and the decision to change quarterbacks.
"Whatever was going to be best for the team," Tagovailoa stated as he explained his reaction to the switch. "When I was in, we couldn't really get things going and coach felt like it was the best decision to put 'Fitz' in to try to give us a spark. If we were to win with Fitzpatrick in there, the locker room would be a lot different, everyone would be a lot happier. It just sucks to lose."
"This game comes down to two or three critical plays," Flores said. "Hopefully we learn from it. There were other plays we didn't make. Dropped balls, from a protection standpoint, it looked like we came clean on a punt block and didn't make that one either. We have to take advantage of our opportunities."
The Broncos went back to what was working with 35 rushing yards, including a 20-yard Gordon touchdown gallop, to open up a two score lead. Trailing by 10, the Dolphins drove the ensuing possession into Broncos territory, but an offensive hold and another sack forced Matt Haack onto the field for his sixth punt.
The Broncos came into the game with the sixth-best third down defense (38.1 percent), second-best red zone defense (50 percent touchdown allowed rate) in the league. They were 12th in sacks with 22. The latter stat was the story of the day.
"It's a good defense," Flores said. "Vic Fangio has one of the top defensive lines in the league. They have good players, they have a good scheme. They pressured us, they mixed the coverages, we didn't execute. We have to play better."
Despite Flores' description of a lack of execution, the Dolphins still had a chance to tie the game up on the final possession. Fitzpatrick broke down the Simmons interception after the game.
"In situations like that, you want to give your playmakers a chance to make plays," Fitzpatrick said. "I got everything I wanted with DeVante on the front side. I need to do a better job of holding the safety. That's the game of football, it's a millisecond difference. If he would've been a step slower and that ball gets in there maybe we're having a happy press conference. I wish I would've had that one second to look off. I wish I would've done that better."
The 6-4 Dolphins are back on the road next week to take on the Jets in the Meadowlands Sunday at 1 p.m.