The Miami Dolphins have developed a habit of fading at the finish, which bodes poorly for the closing stretch of the season.
Over the past eight games, the Dolphins have been outscored 53-23 in the final period. They haven't scored a fourth-quarter touchdown since September. The latest blown lead knocked them out of the driver's seat in the race for the final AFC playoff berth.
Miami built a 16-3 lead that should have been bigger Sunday, but gave up a last-minute touchdown and lost to the Carolina Panthers 20-16.
"It's probably more frustrating than if they put 50 points on the board," defensive end Cameron Wake said. "You know for 56 minutes of the game you are doing everything you can, and you are doing everything you need to do to win the game. Again, that last five or so minutes, where the play needs to be made, we kind of let it slip through our fingers. It's frustrating to know the capability and ability is there, and guys are making it happen, but in critical positions we dropped the ball."
Literally, at the very end. Mike Wallace let a long desperation pass slip off his fingers at the goal line in the final seconds, which summed up the Dolphins' latest fourth-quarter flop.
The defeat dropped them into a six-team tie in the AFC at 5-6. The group is scrambling for the last wild-card spot, behind the five teams in the conference with winning records.
"There's a lot of football left to be played," coach Joe Philbin said Monday. "There are a lot of teams in a cluster, and December is usually the time when teams separate themselves from one another."
Because the Dolphins are only three-quarters good, they're at risk of missing the postseason again — and finishing with a losing record for the fifth consecutive year.
They'll try to climb back to .500 Sunday against the New York Jets, another 5-6 team.
The Dolphins' latest loss was reminiscent of a defeat at New England on Oct. 27, when they blew a 17-3 halftime lead. This time they were at home, dominating a team that had won six consecutive games.
Carolina's comeback began in the final minute of the first half, when Dolphins coaches made the dubious decision to deploy a prevent defense. Soft coverage allowed Cam Newton to complete a swing pass for 29 yards, setting up a field goal on the last play before halftime that made the score 16-6.
On Monday, defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle took the blame for ordering the prevent defense against Newton.
"I made a call that in retrospect I wish I could get back," Coyle said. "We were playing for him to throw the ball deep, and it was my mistake. It wasn't the players."
The fourth quarter was worse. Leading 16-13, the Dolphins were likely one play from victory when Carolina had a fourth and 10 at its own 20 with 2½ minutes to go.
Newton threw a 19-yard completion, and the Panthers went on to score the winning touchdown.
"We had to stop them at the end, and we just didn't close," defensive end Jared Odrick said. "We didn't finish."
Again. The Dolphins have lost six of their past eight games, and their fourth-quarter statistics during that stretch are dismal. They're a minus-three in turnovers, and they've been outgained by 226 yards. Ryan Tannehill has one touchdown pass, five interceptions and 17 sacks. Wallace is averaging 8.9 yards per catch with no scores.
"We've got to make plays when they count," Wallace said. "We kill ourselves."
The Dolphins have showed they can win close games — their past four victories have all been by a total of 14 points. But they've also lost four games by a total of 12 points.
"Most of our games this year have been tight," tackle Tyson Clabo said. "The games we've won, we made the plays down the stretch. And the games we lost, we didn't."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and http://twitter.com/AP_NFL
Follow Steven Wine on Twitter: http://twitter.com/Steve_Wine