Near the end of Sunday, as they discussed their playoff berth, the Miami Dolphins players weren’t quite ready to turn their attention to what’s coming next.
“I’m celebrating for a night,” quarterback Skylar Thompson said after beating the New York Jets 11-6.
That was a good idea, because on Monday the Dolphins woke up to a different world. They’ve become the loneliest team in sports, the one no one’s rooting for, the one opposite a Buffalo Bills team everyone wants to hug and take home.
The Dolphins clawed and crawled their way to finally reach the playoffs for just the third time in two decades only to find the national storyline for this game isn’t the playoffs. It’s not even football in a way everyone understands.
Sunday’s game in Buffalo will be measured on the larger scales of life and hope in the manner Damar Hamlin sat in a Cincinnati hospital bed Sunday, recovering from nearly dying on a football field six days earlier, as Bills fans sent a video saying, “We love you, Damar!”
“I love you more,” the Bills defensive back tweeted.
Hamlin needed CPR during a game last Monday night to stay alive. It was a chilling, on-field scene that made Football America weep. Non-Football America joined in prayer, too, in a manner NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said, “united not just the NFL, but united this country.”
The league had every teams’ players wear warm-up T-shirts Sunday reading “Love For Damar,” with his No. 3. The Bills’ medical staff was honored before their win against New England. Buffalo quarterback Josh Allen saw something larger at work when an opening kickoff was returned for a touchdown.
“It was spiritual,” he said. “It really was. Bone-chilling. It was special.”
He then related in a quaking voice how it was, “Three years and three months since the last kickoff return. So … pretty cool.”
This is what the Dolphins go up against Sunday. Some sports moments go beyond sports. Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon hit a home run on the first pitch after Jose Fernandez died. Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre threw for 399 yards the day after his father died.
Imagine Hamlin being well enough to attend Sunday’s game. Who wouldn’t cheer as he’s introduced to the crowd? Who wouldn’t feel the electric emotion of that scene?
Everyone knows a game doesn’t amount to a pile of sand next to Hamlin’s story of life and death, including the Dolphins players and coaches as they discussed in its aftermath.
But they have to play a football game — a big game as games go — where no one outside their fan base will be rooting for them. No one will care about their offensive questions, or defensive problems or possibly even their scary story of health and recovery.
That depends on if quarterback Tua Tagovailoa plays Sunday. And that depends on if he progresses through concussion protocol this week. Even then, the team and quarterback would have a decision about him playing. Sources inside the Dolphins say Tagovailoa wanted to play against the Jets. That’s no surprise.
Just the possibility of the NFL’s two biggest health scares this season being in the same stadium must give Goodell the heebie-jeebies. The league’s concern would go beyond their health to the league image of people linking the risks of football from Hamlin’s heart to Tagovailoa’s head.
And if Tagovailoa plays? Collective breaths would be held with every play that he wouldn’t suffer a fourth traumatic head injury. No one wants to even consider that.
Tagovailoa greeted his Dolphins teammates, starting with his replacement, Skylar Thompson, in the locker room on Sunday.
Monday brought another day. A rare playoff week.
For years, Dolphins fans have imagined the world and all its accompanying fates and furies have conspired against their team. Now they go to Buffalo, trying for this franchise’s first playoff win in 23 years, and find out it’s true.
The world will be against them Sunday in Buffalo. Everyone understands why, too. That won’t make it any easier being the loneliest team in sports.