They were laughing again, the way winners always laugh, and they were dreaming big again, the way teams do on a day as perfect as this 30-15 win against Pittsburgh.
The Miami Dolphins finally were the team they expected to be Sunday, meaning their defense turned Pittsburgh’s offense to mush and teammates weren’t impressed by the third-quarter scoreboard showing Jay Ajayi had 140 yards rushing.
“Go for 200,” Kenyan Drake told him.
“You can get there,” Damien Williams said.
“Why not?” Ajayi said.
And so Ajayi, who had 117 yards rushing all season entering Sunday, ripped off a 62-yard touchdown to seal the win. His 204 yards on 25 carries stood at the intersection of surprise and inexplicable: The most by any NFL rusher this year and the first 200-yard runner in 16 years against Pittsburgh.
“That was fun,” Ajayi said.
That smile spread across a full roster, too. Fun? Sure. Impressive? That, too. Surprising? Ask your local Fantasy League. An eventual outlier like last season’s 38-10 win against Tennessee?
“We’ll see about that,” Ajayi said.
You don’t need to trust tomorrow just yet. Just know this was a week where new coach Adam Gase pushed buttons and challenged players – and they responded for the first time under him.
It wasn’t just Ajayi, benched in the opener and a non-factor until Sunday. It was cornerback Byron Maxwell, called out by coaches again this week, helping keep Pittsburgh’s star receiver Antonio Brown to four catches and 38 yards.
It was a shuffling of defensive ends, with Mario Williams and Jason Jones benched Sunday. New starters Cameron Wake and Andre Branch combined for two sacks and four hits on Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, who didn’t crack 100 yards passing until a final, quasi-stat-padding drive.
Finally, there was the offensive line with all five starters in place for the first time this year. They pushed around a Pittsburgh front line that, let’s face it, was push-able without end Cameron Heyward.
The Steelers were down in the league in rushing defense and sacks entering the game. The Dolphins planned to pound the ball to the point Ajayi told teammates on Saturday night he wanted 150 yard rushing.
“Why not shoot for 200?” guard Jermon Bushrod said.
Again, that number. If Ajayi ran like something out of a Jim Brown highlight reel, the other part of the line’s work was equally impressive. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill actually left a game with a clean jersey and all internal organs intact.
No sacks on the quarterback who ranked second in the league with 17 entering Sunday. Two measly hits on him.
“I feel great,” he said after completing 24 of 32 passes for 252 yards and a 97.4 rating.
Sunday’s only disappointment was a winner’s lament – it should have been easier. More dominant. Tannehill threw three touchdown passes in the first half, but only had three field goals to show for it.
DeVante Parker and Dion Sims dropped one touchdown each. The third one that tight end MarQueis Gray caught was called back by penalty.
“Give us something to work on,” Bushrod said.
Entering Sunday, they had everything to work on. Exiting Sunday they had a different sort of soul-searching.
“We know we can play like that,” Maxwell said. “Now we’ve just got to do it.”
In the Pittsburgh locker room, there was the glum and numb talk from a team used to winning. Surprise happens in the NFL.
“They are no homecoming opponents in this league,” Steelers linebacker Vince Williams said.
Through five games, the Dolphins looked to be that opponent. Sunday changed that view. It told where things stood that some players saw the Steelers fans that approached half the crowd in Hard Rock Stadium.
“A lot of fans went home angry,” Bushrod said.
Odd to say that about home game. But then so much about this season has been odd right down to explaining Sunday. Not that anyone needed to beyond the emoji.
“It put a smile on my face,” Ajayi said.
The only question Sunday couldn’t answer is if that smile stretches into next Sunday. Buffalo comes to town. After a week of answering challenges with an impressive win, the next challenge is obvious:
Do it again.