MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Emotions were boiling Sunday between the Miami Dolphins and Cincinnati Bengals when two separate scuffles led to five players' being ejected, including Dolphins star cornerback Xavien Howard, lead receiver DeVante Parker and Bengals receiver Tyler Boyd.
The most significant of the skirmishes came early in the fourth quarter in what had already been a chippy game. Bengals special-teams player Mike Thomas hit Dolphins returner Jakeem Grant very early as he tried to catch a punt, leading to significant commotion near the Bengals' sideline with several Dolphins players taking exception to the hit.
Dolphins coach Brian Flores was irate with the Bengals after what he perceived as a cheap shot on Grant, and he marched across the field nearly to the Bengals' sideline, yelling at an unidentified person while being pulled back toward his own sideline by his head of security. It was a culmination of increased chippiness from the Bengals as the Dolphins started to pull away in the game.
"We've got to do a better job of keeping our poise. That starts with me," Flores said. "I've got to do a better job of keeping my poise. I'm going to stick up for my players. They are going to stick up for each other without getting penalties, without hurting the team.
"These are like my kids. First time, yeah. Second time, I got a little upset about it. I've got to do a better job. I have to. I can't hurt the team. My emotions got the best of me there. But again, you see somebody you care about get hit like that twice."
After some pushing and shoving, Bengals safety Shawn Williams gave Parker a violent shove to the head, which led to Parker's throwing punches. Receiver Mack Hollins came to the defense of Parker, throwing some hands, as well. Williams, Parker and Hollins were ejected in the exchange.
"I've got to do a better job," Flores said. "It's about not hurting the team. Unfortunately, I was a part of that today. I'll be better and our team will be better. The people in the organization are very important to me. I'm going to try to protect everyone here: players, coaches. There's a better way to do that."
I love this team...it's special. So much HEART and DESIRE to be GREAT...8-4❗️#FinsUp— Jakeem Grant (@_TheDreamIsHere) December 6, 2020
Several Dolphins players were pleased to see Flores support Grant and them in a key moment.
"It speaks a lot to Flo's character, how much it means to him," quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "His player got hit, and it wasn't the first time, it was the second time. It just means a lot -- he's not just a coach out there. If his guy gets hurt, he's not just going to let it go. He stands up for us as a team. You got to see, not just him, but other guys going in there to defend Jakeem. Although it happened the way it did, it's a testament to how close we are."
Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins added: "It's good to see that because you know he has our back and we're a family."
In a pool report, NFL senior vice president of officiating Al Riveron said officials typically don't get involved with what coaches do in a skirmish because they often serve as "peacemakers" and any potential review would happen during the week.
None of the players significantly involved in the skirmishes -- Parker, Howard, Hollins, Grant, Boyd, Williams and Thomas -- were made available by the Dolphins or Bengals after the game, though Bengals coach Zac Taylor came to Thomas' defense.
"There's no ill will from Mike Thomas. I promise you that," Taylor said, noting he would keep what was said between him and Flores after the game between the two of them. "Everyone needs to maintain their composure, myself included. So we just have to look at what happened. They were both frustrated, but we have to maintain our composure."
The first sign of chippiness came late in the second quarter, when Howard and Boyd were ejected for what referees called "throwing a punch."
Boyd and Howard got tangled up in a scuffle out of bounds after a third-down incompletion. The ejections appeared to be an overreaction, as replays showed that both players were going back and forth with pushes, and it does not appear that a closed-fist punch was thrown or landed. Regardless, both players were sent off after a lengthy discussion.
"When I saw that, I tried to get in there to separate guys -- it's hard to do, there's grown men out there. Some are way bigger than me," said receiver Tee Higgins, who tried to defuse the situation. "But you have to step in there for my teammates. They're family, I'll do anything for family."
Riveron said during the review in New York they saw punches thrown by both Howard and Boyd, noting that "it's a matter of what you classify as a swing and a punch."
Boyd was the only player given an unnecessary roughness penalty, which backed up the Bengals 15 yards and led to a 53-yard missed field goal by Randy Bullock. Riveron said because Boyd was the only one called for a penalty initially, officials couldn't add a penalty for Howard to offset them, though both were determined significant enough for ejections.
Boyd and Howard were having strong first halves. Howard extended his NFL-best interception lead by nabbing his eighth of the year off Bengals quarterback Brandon Allen in the first quarter, while Boyd scored a 72-yard touchdown just a few plays later.
The Dolphins won a largely sloppy game 19-7 behind a strong defensive performance that totaled six sacks, two interceptions and allowed just 192 total yards (30 in the second half). But this game will likely be remembered for the testy scuffles, ejections and how Flores stood up for his team.
"It's football. It's competitive," defensive end Shaq Lawson said. "We left some plays out there in the first half, and I guess that little incident got the whole team hype and ready to go. I guess it was momentum."