Nobody wanted to leave after this one. Getting the postgame party started could wait. First, Miami Dolphins fans wanted to stay after the final whistle, and cheer, and show love to their team -- the one that has so often let them down lately but is lifting them now.
The Dolphins have hosted exactly one playoff game in the past 20 years and it was a long while and six head coaches ago, on January 4, 2009.
South Florida got the next best thing on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.
A game with a playoff atmosphere. With big stakes and an altogether different feel than usual as the Buffalo Bills visited in an early-season duel of unbeaten teams for the AFC East lead.
Tailgating fans began arriving at 7:30 a.m. -- 2 1/2 hours before gates even opened and 5 1/2 hours before kickoff. Fans were standing in the lower bowl throughout most of the game, not typical. Thousands were wearing Bills dark blue, but “Let’s go Dolphins!” chants overwhelmed in the sold-out crowd of 66,206 -- second largest crowd since a redesign lowered capacity in 2015.
The crowd was loud, festive, dialed in.
The playoff atmosphere even had this:
The right ending, at least based on the rollicking party that eventually spilled from the stadium into the parking lots afterward.
Miami 21, Buffalo 19.
Take a picture and store it in your phone for proof in case it doesn’t last.
The Dolphins. Are. In. First. Place.
And Buffalo’s recent domination in this series, seven wins in a row before Sunday, is over.
“If they at all took us lightly, I promise you they won’t again,” said coach Mike McDaniel of the Bills. He added that the days of his team “sneaking up on people” may be over.
Defensive end Christian Wilkins wore his grass-stained uniform and a smile afterward.
“They been beating us every time we played ‘em, but today we had grit. We were gritty,” he said. “Like southern grandmothers make. Grits!”
Another comeback did it.
This one didn’t have the fireworks or drama of the previous week when Miami overcame a 21-point fourth quarter deficit and miraculously won in Baltimore on a six-touchdown day for Tua Tagovailoa.
This uphill climb was more methodical -- but once again had Tua’s fingerprints on it.
Miami trailed and tied but never led throughout the game until Chase Edmonds’ 2-yard scoring run made it 21-17 with 10:05 to play. That series began with a 32-yard strike to Jaylen Waddle and then a 45-yard bull’s-eye to Waddle that set up the TD.
“That’s a big play Tua will always remember,” said coach Mike McDaniel.
Said Tua: “I was trusting that Waddle would beat his guy, which he did.”
A goalline stand by the defense then helped seal the victory, Miami denying the Bills three times from the 2-yard line or closer.
That didn’t end it, though.
Miami muffed a punt from its own end-zone to shave the Fins’ lead to 21-19 with 1:33 left and the Bills with the ball. But the defense held again. Buffalo worked the field and the clock hoping for a game-deciding field goal try but Miami wouldn’t allow it.
When Josh Allen’s final pass failed, Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, the ex-Hurricane, smashed his laptop up in the pressbox, angrily scattering papers in frustration.
Time, and the Dolphins won. And the first-year Dolphin Melvin Ingram signed in the offseason, was splendid on defense for Miami all day.
What proved to be the winning TD was Edmonds’ second score of the day, the first set up by Ingram’s fumble recovery at the Bills 6. Miami’s middle TD was Tua’s 11-yard scoring pass to a receiver whose name, River Cracraft, sounds like something a scriptwriter made up.
The win was Miami’s eighth straight at home dating to last year, a stadium record. The franchise has not had more wins in a row at home since 10 straight in 1984-86, when Dan Marino was fully ascending to superstardom at the old Orange Bowl.
Buffalo was missing four injured defensive starters including three in the secondary, but had a nearly successful strategy to overcome that:
Keep the ball away from the Dolphins with ball possession.
Buffalo dominated time of possession (41 minutes to 19) and offensive plays (90 to 39), thanks to scoring drives of 75, 75 and 87 yards. Bills had 497 total yards to Miami’s 212.
This is not a game that a team on the short side of those numbers usually wins.
“It takes a picture or story of what our team is capable of,” said Tagovailoa.
Buffalo’s Allen threw 63 passes Sunday to a mere 18 by Tagovailoa, who briefly left with what had been said to be a head injury (concussion) but turned out to be a lower-back injury. He missed only one series late in the first half before returning to start the second half, his toughness evident.
“It was uncomfortable” on the last offensive series, he admitted. “It was the adrenaline.”
The dramatic, watershed triumph leaves Miami 3-0 and atop the AFC East heading into Thursday night’s short-week game at Cincinnati -- against a tough early schedule that had plenty imagining the Dolphins might be 1-2 right now, or even 0-3.
It’s only three games in, but something is happening here.
A lot can change, and that can change fast.
For now, Dolphins fans, enjoy this feeling. You are allowed. You’ve waited an awfully long time for it.
For the Dolphins themselves, the most impressive part about finally beating the nemesis Bills was that Miami players weren’t all that impressed by it because they expected it.
As Wilkins put it, “Our goals are bigger than being 3-0.”