It had the makings of an even more dominant, all-around performance than the Miami Dolphins had their last time out.
But after jumping out to a 30-0 halftime lead against the Houston Texans, left tackle Terron Armstead’s early departure due to a pectoral injury put a slight damper on Miami’s efforts.
Nonetheless, the Dolphins came away with a 30-15 win over Houston on Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium, which followed the team’s 39-17 victory against the Cleveland Browns two weeks earlier on the other side of the bye week.
Miami, which retook the AFC East lead due to its tiebreaker over the Buffalo Bills, won its fifth consecutive game and has its first 8-3 start since 2001. The league-worst Texans are now 1-9-1.
The Dolphins go into December in prime position for their first playoff berth since 2016 and possibly a first divisional title since 2008. The schedule gets tough again, though, with road games against the San Francisco 49ers, Los Angeles Chargers and Buffalo Bills on the horizon.
“There is nothing better in professional football than meaningful December and January games,” coach Mike McDaniel said after Sunday’s win. “Nothing better. I’m very excited for our young team and a lot of guys to feel that for the first time.”
The Dolphins’ 30-0 halftime lead was the second-largest the franchise has had over the past 30 seasons, bested only by a 41-0 advantage Miami had at half in a 2015 meeting with Houston.
The Dolphins defense allowed just 32 Texans yards in the first half. The Miami offense produced points on all but one of its possessions before halftime.
But without Armstead, the Dolphins were unable to protect quarterback Tua Tagovailoa. Tagovailoa was sacked four times between the third quarter and final drive of the first half and had another takedown that was negated by a facemask penalty. Both McDaniel and Tagovailoa took blame for the run of Texans sacks.
Tagovailoa had another solid outing overall, but he wasn’t as stellar as he was in his past three games where he had a quarterback rating of 135.0 or better each time out.
With McDaniel putting in backup Skylar Thompson in the third quarter, Tagovailoa finished 22 of 36 for 299 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions. It was good for a 96.9 passer rating. He broke the Miami record for consecutive passes without an interception, finishing Sunday sitting at 174, topping Ryan Tannehill’s previous mark of 160.
Tagovailoa said the conversation at halftime was for him to get two drives in the second half before Thompson, who was the backup with Teddy Bridgewater out due to a knee injury, went in to finish the game. With Houston inching closer late, there was a conversation about Tagovailoa having to be reinserted, but the Dolphins were able to secure a two-touchdown advantage.
While Armstead will likely miss some time, the diagnosis of a pectoral strain, according to a Sunday night NFL Network report, wasn’t as bad as originally feared.
The Texans had two second-half touchdowns, which were followed by failed two-point conversions, plus a field goal, get them within two possessions, 30-15, with nine minutes remaining. Their late rally was then stopped by a third-down sack from Jerome Baker that ended one scoring opportunity. Their next chance was halted by a Verone McKinley interception, the first of the undrafted rookie’s career.
“I definitely feel like we left some money on the table for sure,” said wide receiver Jaylen Waddle, who dropped a pair of passes from Tagovailoa. “We had some plays that we wanted back. I feel like I had some plays I wanted back, a couple drops. We just had a lot of mistakes. Hopefully, that comes out. It was our first week back from break.”
Waddle and Tyreek Hill each had 85 receiving yards — Hill on six receptions and Waddle on five.
Miami opened up a 10-0 lead deep into the first quarter when Tagovailoa bought time in the pocket, slid out to the left and found tight end Durham Smythe over the middle for the 4-yard score.
The Dolphins added to the advantage early in the second quarter following an Andrew Van Ginkel interception and 23-yard return to the Houston 3-yard line. Jeff Wilson Jr. scored easily off a handoff on the next play, his third touchdown in as many games since being traded to Miami at the deadline. Van Ginkel nearly scored his second touchdown in the month of November after taking back Jaelan Phillips blocked punt in Chicago on Nov. 6.
Later leading, 20-0, the Dolphins did get their defensive touchdown when cornerback Xavien Howard took a fumble forced by safety Eric Rowe 16 yards to the end zone.
“That was awesome to see from our defense,” Tagovailoa said. “The turnovers, the sacks, just the big hits that they were making defensively.”
Miami missed out on another touchdown opportunity in between the two scores. Tagovailoa and Hill just couldn’t connect on a short out on second-and-goal, and the Dolphins settled for a short Jason Sanders field goal, his second of the first half.
Sanders added another field goal to end the half and send Miami into the locker room with a 30-0 lead. Tagovailoa took an awkward fall on a sack by the Texans’ Maliek Collins after Armstead left but stayed in the game to start the second half. He was then sacked three more times in the third quarter.
While that was going on, the Dolphins defense surrendered back-to-back Houston scoring drives, one capped by a Dare Ogunbowale 3-yard touchdown run and the other a 25-yard scoring strike from quarterback Kyle Allen to tight end Jordan Akins.
Allen, replacing Davis Mills for Houston, finished 26 of 39 for 215 yards, the touchdown and two interceptions. The Dolphins gave up just 36 rushing yards. Along with Baker, linebackers Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, Elandon Roberts and Duke Riley had sacks.
“Just to be with all these great players around me, it makes my job so much easier,” said Chubb, who played his third game with Miami since getting traded from the Denver Broncos at the deadline.
The road gets tougher for the Dolphins after breezing through a soft part of the schedule over the five consecutive wins. Miami has three road games in a row on deck, with back-to-back on the West Coast at the 49ers and Chargers, followed by a trip to Buffalo to face the Bills.