The Miami Dolphins are still in the huddle as the clock ticks down on fourth-and-1.

Pressure Point: Dolphins give Bills a scare, but leave fans frustrated

This is why they have playoffs, because there are no certainties in the NFL.

Not for the Los Angeles Chargers with a 27-0 lead, only to get swamped by an epic Jacksonville Jaguars comeback in a stunning 31-30 loss on Saturday.

For a while Sunday it looked like another Florida team might flip an improbable script with the Miami Dolphins turning a 17-0 deficit into a 24-20 lead, on the road with a third-string rookie quarterback against the highly favored Bills in their AFC wild-card game.

Ultimately, there was no Miami Miracle in Buffalo as what could have been the Dolphins’ greatest postseason comeback victory fell short 34-31.

While the effort and the scare they put into a bonafide Super Bowl contender was commendable, the ending was wrenching in a way that is characteristic of a franchise that never fails to string along its fans and leave them in agony.

This one will be remembered for the Dolphins’ final hopes fizzling after a delay-of-game penalty on fourth-and-short in the final two-and-a-half minutes.

Confusion on fourth-and-1

For all the good first-year coach Mike McDaniel did in getting the team to the playoffs for the first time in six years and within a whisker of upsetting a 14-point favorite, he will have to endure an offseason of bitter taste from questionable game management in the fourth quarter.

McDaniel repeatedly had trouble getting plays in to quarterback Skylar Thompson and the proper personnel package on the field in timely fashion. They had already burned all of their timeouts because of that issue.

This time there was no way to avoid the penalty. They were still in the huddle with five seconds left on the play clock.

So they went from needing less than a yard to fourth and a long five with 2:29 remaining.

On what would be Miami’s final offensive play, Thompson either didn’t see Tyreek Hill streaking open across the middle or the rush was on him too quick to make that throw. So Thompson looked to the right and was unable to connect with Mike Gesicki on a short pass. And that was that.

McDaniel said afterward that there was confusion with the officials on whether Salvon Ahmed had actually gotten the first down on the previous play.

“We thought we got the first down, so we were deploying some players for the first-and-10. And then it was articulated that it was fourth down,” McDaniel said in his postgame media session.

That was definitely a time when one of those previously squandered timeouts would have come in handy.

Whatever the reason, it made for an excruciating ending as the wind rushed out of the Dolphins’ season with a massive Pffft!

Efficiency in getting plays in and off is certainly an area for improvement as the Dolphins have often pushed the play clock to the final seconds this season. It became more of an issue Sunday with a rookie quarterback contending with a loud, hostile crowd.

Dolphins 0-for-4 since last playoff win

Bottom line, the Dolphins were one-and-done in the playoffs for the fourth time since they last won in the postseason 22 years ago.

They gave a much better accounting of themselves than in the previous three which were all routs by a combined score of 77-24.

It appeared like it would more of the same with Josh Allen and the Bills leading 17-0 early in the second quarter.

Turnovers had a lot to do with the arc of this game and everything to do with the Dolphins making a contest of it. Miami cashed in 18 points off three turnovers.
Allen came in with 14 touchdown passes and only one interception in his playoff career.

The Dolphins picked him off twice in the second quarter and forced him into a fumble that defensive lineman Zach Sieler scooped up for a go-ahead touchdown early in the third quarter.

The Bills regained the lead after converting a Thompson interception into a short touchdown drive.

But Thompson led an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to bring Miami within three points with 10:53 remaining.

Thompson ended up completing 18 of 45 for 220 yards and one touchdown, with two interceptions and a passer rating of 44.7.

Would Tua Tagovailoa have changed wild-card outcome?

The rookie was often off target and slow getting passes off. But he didn’t get great help from his receivers, who had several notable drops.

Jaylen Waddle, in particular, looked like he was trying to catch a pot roast slipping off a greased platter with oven mitts until finally coming through with three catches in the fourth quarter.

Damar Hamlin, the Bills safety who needed to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati two weeks ago, watched on TV and tweeted following the game: “I have to give a huge shout out to the Dolphins. Made it a game. I’m so looking forward to more Bills Dolphins in the foreseeable future.”

Yes, the Dolphins bucked steep odds and made it closer than most of their fans may have hoped for. But the way it turned out left them feeling frustrated with the many mistakes, angry about the disorganization in game management and lamenting how the outcome could have been different with starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa a healthy participant.

Unfortunately, health and availability has been elusive with Tagovailoa. Recurring concussions have put his long-term viability in question — the most recent head injury kept him out of the final two games of the regular season and the playoff.

Adam Schefter, of ESPN, reported Sunday that Tagovailoa “is expected to return as the Dolphins starting quarterback next season” and that he might have been cleared from concussion protocol had the Dolphins advanced in the postseason.

According to Schefter: “Medical professionals also are confident that Tagovailoa should be able to resume his NFL career next season, if not sooner, sources said.”

Like the outcome of Sunday’s game, that is just another uncertainty in the Miami Dolphins’ unending seasons of elusive hope.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Rookie Skylar Thompson will start for the Miami Dolphins in the wild-card game against the Bills.

Pressure Point: Dolphins face unenviable task in playoffs, challenging offseason

The difference between a hit and a flop is often paper-thin in the NFL.

For the Miami Dolphins, the 2022 season swung on a 50-yard field goal attempt by Justin Sanders in the final seconds of the regular-season finale last Sunday against the New York Jets.

Essentially a coin flip. Heads, he makes it and the Dolphins remain alive for the playoffs. Tails, he misses and the season ends with a sickening thud of a six-game losing streak.

Given how Dolphins fortunes had eroded in the final weeks, I wasn’t even sure I wanted Sanders to succeed until the kick split the uprights and long-suffering Dolfans erupted with joy. They certainly deserved a sip of satisfaction after the steady diet of crap sandwiches they’ve been fed by this franchise in this millennium.

The reaction to skidding into the final AFC wild-card spot (with help from the Bills defeating the Patriots) confirmed that it is always preferable for you team to make the playoffs under any circumstances — especially when the alternative would have been the ultimate despair of the worst collapse in franchise history.
The season-ending thud may well come Sunday at Buffalo against the AFC East champion Bills — all but the most unabashedly optimistic Dolphins fans expect it. But let’s take a moment to toast the success these Dolphins did have in the 2022 season.

McDaniel pulled off wild card

First-year coach Mike McDaniel, who was courted by no other team last offseason, led Miami to its first playoff appearance since 2016. He produced a much-improved offense and coaxed a breakthrough season from Tua Tagovailoa before the quarterback’s latest concussion kept him out of the last two games of the regular season and Sunday’s playoff. (More on Tua in a moment).

Superstar wide receiver Tyreek Hill was named on Friday to the Associated Press All-Pro team for the fourth time in his first season with Miami. Hill set Dolphins’ records with 119 receptions and 1,710 yards.

Hill was clearly the team’s MVP as he proved to be everything the Dolphins hoped when they traded five draft picks to Kansas City and signed him for $120 million over four years.

The big surprise and the Dolphins’ major success story of the year was undrafted cornerback Kader Kohou playing well enough to be recognized with a place on the NFL All-Rookie team by the analytics website Sports Info Solutions. Kohou held up admirably while being targeted 106 times, the most among defensive backs in the league, posting a highly respectable 80.7 passer rating.

Kohou helped fill the void of Byron Jones missing the entire season. Signing him undrafted out of Texas A&M-Commerce somewhat offsets the mistake of picking Noah Igbinoghene in the first round in 2020.

Dolphins’ young talent stands out

Encouraging for the future, this Dolphins team has more standout players than seen in Miami in years. Most of them are young.
Second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle led the league in yards per reception (18.1) on 75 catches. His 1,356 yards ranked seventh in the league and were third in Dolphins history.

Defensive lineman Christian Wilkins has improved progressively and in his fourth season was an absolute beast. His 98 tackles were the most by an NFL defensive lineman since 1994 and a Dolphins record.

Zach Sieler’s 70 tackles ranked fifth among defensive linemen. Sieler, notably, was a waiver claim in 2019.

Linebacker Jaelan Phillips made a significant transformation in his second season from a pass-rush specialist to solid every-down defender with major improvement against the run. Pro Football Focus ranked him among the top 10 edge players in the league.

Tagovailoa’s future prospects a mystery

Still, the Dolphins will face a much more uneasy offseason than would be expected of a playoff team. Tagovailoa’s hazy football future is the main reason for that.
In addition, the defense underachieved despite the efforts of Wilkins, Phillips, Sieler, Kohou and the midseason addition of linebackerBradley Chubb — cornerback Xavien Howard and safety Jevon Holland didn’t have outstanding seasons but remain cornerstones in the secondary.

Shortcomings of the defense, which ranked bottom-third in the league in allowing 23.5 points a game, will need to be addressed. Will that start with a change at defensive coordinator or will Josh Boyer return?

But the most vexing concern is Tagovailoa. He led the league with a passer rating of 105.5 but missed 4 ½ games while suffering two and possibly three concussions.

If Tua is cleared to return to football and wants to continue his career, he will return as the starting quarterback next season. Considering the recurrence of head injuries and the slow recovery from the most recent concussion, that is no certainty.

Skylar Thompson to start in wild card game at Buffalo

McDaniel said early this week that his only concern was Tagovailoa “getting to full health as a human being,” not his playing career.
On Friday, McDaniel confirmed that Tua is out for Sunday and rookie Skylar Thompson will start against the Bills.

As for Tua’s progress in concussion protocol, McDaniel said: “The current stage is the same as it was last. He’s been around and been good and I’m just worried about his day-to-day health. I’ll let you know when it does advance, but besides checking on him and how he’s doing, it’s a big-time life adjustment when you go from playing to being out.”

The question of longevity makes investing long-term in Tua a risky proposition for the Dolphins. They don’t even have a first-round draft pick in 2023.

Dolphins 13-point dogs vs. Bills

Meanwhile, they will have Thompson, a rookie seventh-round pick, making his third NFL start and first playoff appearance opposite Josh Allen and the Bills.
No wonder the Dolphins are the biggest underdogs in this weekend’s playoffs, with the Bills favored by 13 points.

Coincidentally, the Dolphins went into their previous playoff game with back-up Matt Moore starting in place of Ryan Tannehill and were blown out 30-12 at Pittsburgh at the end of the 2016 season.

Dolfans certainly have reason to feel trepidation. In three wild-card appearances since they last won a playoff game (2000 season), they were lopsided loser by a combined 77-24 against the Ravens (twice) and the Steelers).

Asked about the perception that the Dolphins don’t have a chance at Buffalo, McDaniel said Friday: “I’m very used — that doesn’t make me, personally, blink. This just in — no one expected me personally to do anything that I’ve ever done, really. I think a journey of an NFL player is very similar with the amount of competition there is and how the parity is what it is. I think most guys on NFL teams have been told they couldn’t. It’s a really good football team that we’re playing, so we probably agree with people in that regard. … If we think we’re pretty good as well or have a higher opinion than everybody else, that’s not everybody else’s fault.

“If you’re happy with your investment, you can live with the outcome, regardless of what it is.”

So smile, Dolfans, your team is in the playoffs. It doesn’t happen often. It usually turns out ugly. The roster has been hit hard by injuries, but so has every other team at this stage of the season. The NFL is a league of attrition and surprises.

The Dolphins have two of the best receivers in football and other talented players mentioned above. Maybe with a couple starts under his belt, Thompson will perform more like he showed in preseason than he has so far in games that count and show that he may be a viable option for the future.

By the way, Thompson will have one thing in common with Dan Marino. They are the only rookies to start at quarterback for the Dolphins in the playoffs.
Getting to the playoffs, by whatever means, isn’t nothing. Might as well take a peek.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tua Tagovailoa will miss the Dolphins' game at New England and possibly more.

Pressure Point: Tua’s uncertain future puts Dolphins in a bind

Maybe the Miami Dolphins will clinch that elusive wild card on Sunday. All they need is a win at New England — they’ve won four in a row against the Patriots — and a Jets loss at Seattle.

It would be a feel-good story with backup quarterback Teddy Bridgewater leading his hometown team into the playoffs. But it would mask the reality of the star-crossed Dolphins, who don’t seem like a legitimate playoff team while reeling on a four-game losing streak and with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s future again clouded by another concussion.

They have gone from having the upper hand in the AFC East at 8-3 to clinging to the hope of the final wild card in the expanded playoffs.

They have a porous defense with an injury depleted secondary that ranks last in the league on the road — and they would be on the road for the playoffs.

But Tagovailoa’s latest concussion is the biggest reason for the Dolphins’ not so happy New Year.

Recurring concussions jeopardize Tua’s career

Tua’s unsteady December had already revived old questions about his ability to deliver at an elite level — he performed well at Buffalo but was poor to erratic in the other three losses.

It wasn’t even clear when he got hurt in last week’s loss to the Packers. His three interceptions in the fourth quarter sealed the Dolphins’ fate that day.

The two, and quite possibly three, concussions Tagovailoa has suffered this season are much more concerning for the immediate future of the franchise.

Durability has always been the main question about Tua. In college at Alabama it was lower body. With the Dolphins it’s been something every year. The recurring head injuries suggest his career may be on a short leash.

That farewell press conference, when a teary Tagovailoa steps to the microphone and says that in the interest of his own health and his family’s well being that he is done with football, could come at any time.

Maybe at the end of this season. Maybe after a couple more knocks to the head next season. With multiple injuries to his brain, Tua has certainly entered a danger zone.

Dolphins face offseason challenges

Tua may well return next week for the season finale against the Jets with a possible playoff start to follow. But uncertainty about the quarterback’s future puts the Dolphins in a predicament going forward.

They must decide by May whether to exercise Tagovailoa’s fifth-year option for 2024. Meanwhile, they are limited in resources if they decide he’s not the long-term solution they were banking on — or if his health prevents him from being that.

More from Five Reasons Sports: Three key for the Dolphins at New England

The Dolphins don’t have a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. They will enter the offseason with less than $5 million in cap space.

Rookie Skylar Thompson, who impressed in extended opportunity in the preseason, has flopped so far in limited time during the regular season.

Dolphins’ season falling short of expectations

So for the moment the Dolphins’ fate is in the hands of journeyman Bridgewater, who has his own history of concussions.

With high winds expected Sunday at Gillette Stadium, the Dolphins would be wise to saddle up their running game and hope the defense can hold a not-great Patriots offense in check.

If they succeed in making it five in a row against the Belichicks and the Jets return winless from Seattle, it will be Miami’s first trip to the playoffs since the 2016 season.

That’s not nothing, but this season held the possibility of so much more just over a month ago when Tua was leading a five-game winning streak and hearing “MVP” chants at home.

The picture isn’t so rosy now, even with a possible playoff trip in store. The franchise may be encountering stronger headwinds just down the road.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tua Tagovialoa was dramatically outplayed by Justin Herbert in the Dolphins' 23-17 loss to the Chargers.

Pressure Point: Tua Tagovailoa faces biggest career test at Buffalo

The surprise wasn’t how well Justin Herbert carved up the Miami Dolphins defense in the Los Angeles Chargers’ 23-17 win Sunday night.

Herbert is that good. He’s been showing it since he arrived in the NFL in 2020.

The surprise was how poorly Tua Tagovailoa played for the second week in a row on the West Coast.

Once is a bad game. Twice in a row is a trend.

The trend runs deeper than two weeks, as Simon Clancy @siclancy points out in highlighting Tagovailoa’s 0-4 career record in consequential December/January games on the road: four touchdowns, six interceptions, 64.29 passer rating. Margin of defeat, just under 21 points.

The 34-3 drubbing in the penultimate game of last season (Jan. 2) at Tennessee choked out playoff hope built on a seven-game winning streak, and it came against Miami’s former long-time quarterback Ryan Tannehill.

Sunday was another of those oh-so-Dolphins humiliations with Herbert, the quarterback they passed up in the 2020 draft, throwing for 367 yards while Tagovailoa had a paltry 145 yards, 35.7 completion percentage and 65.3 passer rating on another abysmal off-kilter day.

Tua needs bounce-back game badly

Even the NFL rubbed salt in the wound with a snarky headline on its YouTube highlights video of the game (later removed): “Justin Herbert shows Miami what they could’ve had.”

Look, it’s been clearly evident that the Dolphins left the better quarterback on the table in 2020 when they drafted Tua at No. 5 and left Herbert for the Chargers to take at No. 6.

The questions about Tua were always about Tua himself and had nothing to do with Herbert: Could he stay healthy and productive, given his injury history and stature? Could the Dolphins win with him?

There’s always been the possibility both teams could have come out of that draft with franchise-caliber quarterbacks.

Durability remains an issue, but in his third season the view of Tagovailoa was finally trending in that direction. With the Dolphins on a five-game winning streak and Tagovailoa putting up sterling numbers for accuracy, efficiency and down-field connections there were chants of M-V-P, M-V-P.

Two puzzling, off-target performances later in losses at San Francisco and L.A. have undone a lot of the headway he was making — a lot of it coming against the likes of the Lions, Bears, Browns and Texans.

Dolphins stymied by Chargers’ scheme

The stumble against the 49ers’ league-leading defense could be shrugged off to some extent. The Chargers should have been prime for picking, though. They were missing six starters on defense, including two in the secondary. The previous week the Raiders’ Davante Adams burned them for 177 yards on eight receptions.

Chargers defensive-minded coach Brandon Staley stymied the Dolphins by throwing press coverage at the Dolphins’ speedy receivers (35 percent of the time, according to Next Gen Stats) and clogging the middle of the field that Tua and his receivers like to exploit. The Dolphins managed only 219 total yards.

Even Tyreek Hill, except for the 60-yard TD catch when Michael Davis got his feet tangled and fell, had a pedestrian receiving day. Jaylen Waddle was mostly MIA.

Dolphins rookie coach Mike McDaniel’s aura as an innovative offensive mind lost some luster Sunday. He didn’t adjust to counter the Chargers’ coverage scheme, and McDaniel’s vaunted zone-blocking running attack didn’t find any traction for the second consecutive game. He didn’t even give it much of a chance.

Dolphins’ playoff fortunes diminishing rapidly

Now a Dolphins season that held more promise than Dolfans have seen in years is taking on the trajectory of a lead balloon.
With the chilling prospect of a snowy Saturday night in Buffalo just ahead.

A win against either the 49ers or Chargers would have given the Dolphins the chance to regain command of the AFC East with a win over the Bills. Now they are likely playing for a wild card and another tough assignment on the road.

If that.

These Dolphins have more issues than Tua’s misfires the past two weeks. The defense has been victimized by less distinguished quarterbacks than Herbert — Brock Purdy and Zach Wilson, for instance. The addition of Brandon Chubb hasn’t brought a notable improvement to a unit that has been subpar all season.

While L.A. was pressing Miami receivers, Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer opted for a weird conservative alignment just before the half with the Chargers facing third-and-goal at the Miami 17. Eight Miami defenders were spread out near the goal line, and Austin Ekeler was able to follow an escort of blockers to the 1. Ekeler scored from there on fourth down and the Chargers took a 17-7 lead at the half.

There has certainly has been a lot to question lately about this Dolphins team that seemed bound to break the mold from a painful past. Fortunes pivot quickly in the NFL.

Tagovailoa said recently that last season he questioned himself, wondering, “Do I suck?”

That would be a bit harsh now, given his overall body of work this season.

There is one way to get his season trending in the right direction again. Snowy Buffalo awaits.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tua Tagovailoa, with Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, had an uncharacteristically poor performance in the loss against San Francisco.

Pressure Point: Dolphins need Tagovailoa to bounce back like franchise QB

This one was (mostly) on Tua, and he knew it.

“No one really to blame but myself,” Tua Tagovailoa said after he misfired early and often in the Miami Dolphins’ 33-17 loss Sunday at San Francisco. “It sucks that we didn’t come out and do what we wanted to do collectively. Obviously, it starts with me offensively.”

This was prime example of why a franchise quarterback is so essential to rise to the top in the modern NFL.

It’s what distinguishes the rare breed that can make everything right when everything is going wrong.

Like when your defense is getting picked apart by a third-string rookie quarterback who entered the league as Mr. Irrelevant. And when you’re sophisticated zone-blocking running game is getting schooled by the one it was modeled after. And you’re facing the top-rated defense in the league without your best offensive lineman.

That’s what the Dolphins needed against the 49ers and Tagovailoa failed to deliver in the first big test of the late-season playoff push.

The frustrating part is that it was within his reach. There were ample opportunities that were missed, particularly in the first half. Receivers were open for significant gains. Pass protection was often better than may have been expected in the absence of cornerstone left tackle Terron Armstead.

Time and again Tua missed the open man. Badly.

Tagovailoa uncharacteristically inaccurate

The familiar Tua touch got misplaced somewhere on the way to Santa Clara. Several throws were too high for leaping receivers. Others fell short or off line.

It was so glaring that you started to wonder, who kidnapped Tua?

Particularly in the first half when he completed only 8 of 18 for 162 yards.

Tagovailoa came into the game second in the NFL in completion percentage 71 percent (on pace for a Dolphins season record). He finished Sunday completing just 54.6 percent of his attempts (18 of 33).

There were also interceptions on back-to-back possessions in the third quarter. The first came when intended target Jeff Wilson Jr. fell and ended Tua’s string of 193 passes without a pick.

His very next pass was also intercepted. The picks led to a pair of 49ers field goals.

“I missed guys. There is also some miscommunication of where guys should be breaking. But a poor performance on my part,” Tagovailoa said. “It’s hard to win a game when you’re not on your P’s and Q’s and you’re not dialed in.”

Third-string rookie Purdy golden for 49ers

For whatever reason, he wasn’t the accurate, efficient Tua we’re accustomed to seeing. Maybe he was rushing his throws in anticipation of the 49ers relentless pass rush.

Understandable with Nick Bosa bringing the heat all day. Bosa, the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November, got a great start on December with three sacks, four quarterback hits, a forced fumble and two tackles for loss.

The NFL is a test of adversity, and the 49ers handled theirs much better with Brock Purdy, the final pick in the 2022 draft, stepping in after Jimmy Garoppolo exited on a cart with a season-ending foot injury and outshining would-be MVP candidate Tagovailoa.

Purdy had a huge conversion on under pressure on third-and 10 on touchdown drive just before the half that put San Francisco ahead to stay.

Games tend to turn on pivotal moments. Even with so much going awry for the Dolphins, the tide seemed to be swinging in their favor when they forced a punt on the first possession of the second half and an unsportsmanlike penalty on the return set up them up in 49ers territory. They advanced farther on a roughing-the-passer call against Bosa and then Raheem Mostert went 18 yards on what would have been Miami’s longest run of the game. But a phantom holding call on Robert Hunt negated it. Tua threw the first interception on the next play.

Loss not devastating to Dolphins’ playoff chances

The result certainly wasn’t all on Tagovailoa. He finished with 295 yards and two touchdowns, including a 45-yard toss to Tyreek Hill that pulled the Dolphins within a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. But it wasn’t the elite-level performance the Dolphins needed against an opponent like the 49ers.

It happens to the best of them. Patrick Mahomes fell short of his standards Sunday in the Chiefs’ loss to the Bengals.

Tua looked like a franchise QB in the early season comeback against the Ravens and in some dazzling efforts against lesser opponents.

The Dolphins need him to produce as that level in the vital games ahead, starting next Sunday night against the Justin Herbert and the Chargers. A win would enable the Dolphins to regain command of the AFC East the following week at Buffalo against Josh Allen and the Bills.

A very tall order indeed, made more difficult by the game being moved up a day to Saturday, Dec. 17.

It’s the sort of challenge that separates a franchise quarterback from a pretender.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tua Tagovailoa has thrived in coach Mike McDaniel's offense with the Miami Dolphins.

Pressure Point: Tua, Dolphins in position to prove themselves on field, defy doubters

The narrative around Tua Tagovailoa has always been a rush to judgment. Not only in the voices writing him off in his first two seasons with the Miami Dolphins, but even now that the song has changed to a chorus of lavish praise.

The transformation of Tua this season in Mike McDaniel’s offense has been heartening and given long-suffering Dolfans a sense they may finally have a quarterback to lead the team to genuine success.

It has certainly been fun to watch the third-year quarterback leading the most prolific Dolphins offense since Danny Boy was letting it fly to the Marks Brothers.
In just a few weeks Tagovailoa has gone from much-maligned to canonized.

I prefer to withhold assessment until this season’s body of work is complete.

49ers defense formidable adversary

The NFL season doesn’t begin in earnest until Thanksgiving. It is about to get very real for Tua and the Dolphins with a six-pack of treachery standing between them and the playoffs.

The first foray into the gauntlet, Sunday at San Francisco, will give a more telling read on this Dolphins offense than the current five-game winning streak, attained against some of the most porous defenses in the NFL.

They will be up against the top-ranked 49ers defense with a punishing pass rush led by Fort Lauderdale native Nick Bosa, who has 11.5 sacks and was just named the NFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for November. Oh, and the Dolphins are holding out hope that star left tackle Terron Armstead, who strained a pectoral muscle last Sunday, will be available to try to slow him down (he’s listed as doubtful).

The most significant images from the 30-15 win over the lowly Texans were the four rapid-fire sacks of Tua after Brandon Shell took Armstead’s place.

This is not a forecast of doom. The 49ers aren’t infallible, despite allowing only 40 points while winning their past four games. That was preceded by giving up 44 points in a loss to the Chiefs.

Dolphins face tough stretch run

It is cautionary. Miami’s five-game winning streak has come against five sub-.500 teams that are a combined 16-39-1.

The Dolphins’ six remaining opponents are a combined 39-30. Five of them are in playoff position now or contending for a wild-card spot.

The next three are on the road: Sunday at the 7-4 49ers, then at the 6-5 Los Angeles Chargers and at their primary AFC East nemesis, the 9-3 Buffalo Bills.

Only the 4-8 Packers at home on Christmas Day seems like a potential breather.

They finish with a cold-weather visit to New England for New Year’s before the season finale at Hard Rock Stadium against the Jets.

Are these Dolphins worthy of their current lofty status (the No. 2 seed in the AFC before the Bills won on Thursday night)?

Is Tua true to the numbers he’s been putting up the past five games and now ready to lead them in serious championship pursuit?

Heat always on Tua

It doesn’t matter how the talking heads and prognosticators weigh in. The beauty of what the Dolphins have achieved to this point is they will have a chance to answer all the questions on the field.

It starts with the Protege vs. Mentor matchup in McDaniel’s return to San Francisco. Then the Tua vs. Justin Herbert Forever Debate gets an on-field airing. (Remember, Tua and the Dolphins won their previous meeting in 2020).

There will also be two episodes of Whose Weather is Tougher on Division Rivals with the Dolphins’ visits to Buffalo and New England.

For what it’s worth, CBS Sports projects the Dolphins to end up seeded No. 5 as the AFC’s top wild card with the Bills winning the East. That is based on the SportsLine computer simulation of the remainder of the NFL season.

There is no shortage of doubters out there. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith suggested that the 49ers’ rush is a threat to “fragile” Tua’s health.

Sure, it’s a concern. The onus is on the line — Miami’s offensive line, that is — to protect its quarterback whether Armstead is there or not.

Battle to control middle of field

It’s up to Tagovailoa to continue to do what he’s been doing well in going through his progressions quickly and getting the ball to a corps of receivers that has to put fear into any defense.

The intriguing area of focus in Sunday’s game will be the intermediate middle of the field that Tua has exploited so successfully. Defending that area, where middle linebacker Fred Warner roams, happens to be what the 49ers do best.

Next Gen Stats Analyst Keegan Abdoo highlights two telling stats:

“[Tagovailoa] has 38 completions when throwing to the intermediate middle this season, a whopping 16 more than any other quarterback — and that’s despite Tua missing two whole games. [Tyree] Hill and [Jaylen] Waddle’s burst and ability to separate have been key to Tagovailoa’s success in this area, allowing the quarterback to sling it as soon as he hits the back of his drop. …

“Since Warner arrived in San Francisco, opposing quarterbacks have had as much trouble finding affordable real estate as Bay Area residents themselves. The 49ers have allowed just 71 completions to the intermediate middle over the last five seasons, 15 fewer than any other defense.”

So, something has to give Sunday, and that’s the reason for tuning in every week.

Embrace the difficulty of the task ahead. There’s no dodging it anyway.

It’s what Dolfans have been waiting years for, to see their team this relevant in the most vital stretch of a season.

Proof is in the Dec. 11 game against the Chargers being flexed to “Sunday Night Football.” The network sees ratings in Tua vs. Herbert and all the fireworks that promises.

This Dolphins franchise has endured tons of December/January heartbreak in the past. The first 11 games have given reason to believe this season may be different.

The next month and a half will determine whether there will be reason to toast a viable playoff run or face another offseason crying in our beer.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Miami Dolphins Tua Tagovailoa and Trent Sherfield dance in celebration of a touchdown against the Browns.

Pressure Point: First-place Dolphins well positioned for playoff push

Tyreek Hill said he’s going to the Bahamas to “sit by the beach and drink some mimosas” during the Miami Dolphins’ bye week.

The star wide receiver has certainly earned it, a major reasons the Dolphins are 7-3 and alone in first place in the AFC East following Sunday’s 39-17 romp over the Cleveland Browns — and Buffalo’s subsequent loss to Minnesota.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Jeff Wilson Jr. followed Hill all the way to Paradise Island, just as the running back did on the way to the promised land of the end zone Sunday with his speedy teammate waving him through like a motorcycle cop clearing the express lane for a VIP.

That was one of an inordinate number of giddy, feel-good moments in the Dolphins’ fourth consecutive win that featured so much dancing and jiving and celebrating it was as if everyone at Hard Rock Stadium had taken a deep hit of helium and was jabbering with high-pitched glee like Minnie Mouse.

I mean, when have you seen this team so well in sync?

There was Wilson, who seemingly materialized out of thin air in an oh-by-the-way trade deadline deal by GM Chris Grier, running for 117 yards at a 7.0 per-carry average.

Kudos to Dolphins’ O-line

The much-maligned offensive line not only kept Tua Tagovailoa sack free, it paved the way for a team total 195 yards rushing, with Raheem Mostert going for 65 yards while averaging 8.1 a carry including a 24-yard touchdown gallop that broke the game open on the first possession of the second half.

There was the defense overcoming a shaky start and turning in one of the better efforts of the season with newcomer Bradley Chubb beginning to show the impact he can have with half a sack and three quarterback hurries.

And most significant, Tagovailoa summoning chants of “MVP, MVP, MVP” with a third consecutive sublime performance of three touchdown passes, no interceptions and passer rating of 135.0 or better.

Not only has he not thrown so much as a near interception in the past three weeks, it’s tough to recall a pass that wasn’t right on target. The absolute dime he delivered to Trent Sherfield in the corner of the end zone was worth watching over and over again.

One other thing of note: the Dolphins didn’t punt in the game.

Dolphins haven’t been 7-3 since 2001

Considering Tagovailoa missed 2 ½ games with a concussion (or two) and there were serious questions about his health and future, the Dolphins arrived at their well-deserved week off sitting about as pretty as anyone could have dreamed.

Then the first round of mimosas was delivered on the house courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings winning 33-30 in overtime at Buffalo in as compelling of a regular-season game as you’ll see this or any season.

That gifted the division lead to the Dolphins, who had already lifted themselves into a rarefied place.

That was noted in the tweet of the day by Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press, who wrote:

“The last time the Dolphins were 7-3 was 2001.
– 24 starting QBs ago
– 8 head coaches ago
– 7 stadium names ago
– Heat had zero titles
– LeBron was in HS
– iPod came out
– iPhone was 6 years away
– Tua was 3
– Mike McDaniel was a Yale freshman
– Tom Brady was a first-year starter”

Plenty of work ahead for Dolphins

In diverging from the frustrating past two decades (at least to this point), the Dolphins have positioned themselves well for the final seven-game push for playoff position, a stretch that features ample opportunity but is certain to deliver plenty of adversity along the way.

Already some on the horizon. According to various media reports Sunday night, defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah suffered a season-ending triceps injury.

Of the four remaining games outside the AFC East, only the Los Angeles Chargers (away on Dec. 11) are over .500.

Ultimately it will be the final round against the three division rivals — Dec. 17 or 18 at Buffalo, Jan. 1 at New England and the season finale on Jan. 7 or 8 at home against the Jets — that will determine whether the Dolphins will be toasting success or drowning their sorrows at season’s end.

At 7-3 entering the bye week, they have good season to feel pretty damn good about themselves for this momentous moment.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tyreek Hill does a flip in celebration of scoring a touchdown for the Dolphins in the win against the Bears.

Pressure Point: Dolphins count on high-flying offense to keep pace in tight AFC East

The plot has certainly thickened in the AFC East race after the Miami Dolphins held off Justin Fields and the Bears in Chicago and the resurgent New York Jets put the kibosh on Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills in the second half at the Meadowlands on Sunday.

That left the Bills, Dolphins and Jets each with six wins, Buffalo holding a thin grip on first place at 6-2, having played one fewer game. The Dolphins and Jets, each 6-3, have a tiebreaker advantage over Buffalo, as New York does over Miami.

With New England close behind at 5-4, the division couldn’t offer more intrigue entering the second half of the season. All four teams are over .500 after nine weeks of play.

This would be an opportune time for the Dolphins to have a bye week and catch their breath after chasing Fields all over Soldier Field. But first they must face the Browns, with one of the league’s best rushing offenses, before getting a week off to sort out their defensive woes.

Tua, Fields put on memorable show

Meanwhile, the Dolphins are on a three-game winning streak after prevailing in one of the wildest games of the season, 35-32 in what was a showcase of two of the NFL’s most exciting young quarterbacks.

The numbers were insane.

Tua Tagovailoa completed 21 of 30 passes for 302 yards, with three touchdowns, no interceptions and no sacks.

Fields not only threw for three touchdowns, he ran for another while setting a regular-season rushing record by a quarterback with 178 yards on 15 carries.
As frustrating as it was to watch Fields run around and through the Miami defense, including a 61-yard touchdown scamper, it sure was entertaining to watch Tagovailoa shredding the Bears’ pass defense, averaging 10.1 yards per attempt.

Can’t cover Tyreek Hill

Tyreek Hill had seven catches for 143 yards and a touchdown, and is now over 1,000 yards receiving for the season. Jaylen Waddle also had a TD grab while catching five passes for 85 yards.

Running back Jeff Wilson, whose acquisition from the 49ers last week was overshadowed by the trade for pass-rush stud Bradley Chubb, ended up leading Miami with 51 yards rushing while averaging 5.7 a carry and caught what proved to be the winning touchdown pass.

Ironically, Tua put the victory in jeopardy by misfiring on fourth-down passes on consecutive drives into Chicago territory in the second half. But the Dolphins defense finally got the game-sealing stop with a sack by Duke Riley followed by two incompletions.

The hope is Chubb’s presence will elevate the defense when he gets fully integrated into the unit — he provided pressure that helped force a punt in the third quarter. But there are more problems in containment and coverage than one player can solve.

Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard isn’t playing at that level as he copes with a lingering groin issue and counterpart Byron Jones still has not played this season and who knows if he will.

Fortunately for Miami, Tagovailoa is healthy and playing the best he has in his career, making full use of the most dynamic receiving duo in the game. Hill is a legitimate MVP candidate.

Dolphins go as far as Tua and Co. take them

The teams Miami is vying with in the division are in sharp contrast to the Dolphins’ strengths. The Jets are getting it done with defense and running the ball; that was a winning formula Sunday against Buffalo. The Bills have one of the league’s top defenses and the sort of running quarterback in Allen that has given Miami fits.

Having to win high-scoring games may not be the classic formula for success. But as long as the Dolphins keep Tua upright and he can keep the offense rolling like the past couple of weeks, they have a chance to make it interesting and entertaining the second half of the season. Sunday’s win at Chicago was all of that.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Tyree Hill and Jaylen Waddle are giving the Miami Dolphins the most dynamic receiving duo in the NFL.

Pressure Point: Dolphins’ offense spectacular in win, but porous pass defense worrisome

The Miami Dolphins’ uneasy 31-27 comeback win Sunday at Detroit brought more relief than satisfaction.

It looks a lot better concealed in a 5-3 ledger — which keeps Miami in the thick of the AFC East race — than it did in the light of day.

Falling behind 14-0 and 21-7 against a 1-5 team (now 1-6) that didn’t score a touchdown and only six points total the previous two games was ominous for a team with playoff aspirations.

Jared Goff shredded Miami’s injury-riddled secondary like soft cheese and special teams got burned on a fake punt during the Lions’ 27-point first half.

Fortunately, the Dolphins have an unstoppable force named Tyreek Hill, who had 12 catches for 188 yards and is on pace to break Calvin Johnson’s single-season receiving record and the first 2,000-yard receiving season. The Cheetah had two key catches on the final drive that sealed the win, and was clearly the best player on the field all day.

Tua on target

Tua Tagovailoa turned in one of his best performances: 29-for-36 for 382 yards three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 138.7 rating. The accuracy absent last week in Tua’s return from a concussion (or two?) was back to his standards Sunday.

He threw some beauties, such as the second of two touchdowns to Jaylen Waddle.

Hill’s sidekick Waddle had another 100-yard receiving day (eight catches for 106 yards), and with 727 yards and five touchdowns is tracking toward a 1,500-yard season of his own.

Meanwhile, Mike Gesicki had another TD-grab as he becomes more of a factor in the passing game, and Trent Sherfield continues to contribute timely catches.

All of those gaudy numbers on offense (476 total yards including 107 rushing) are fun to talk about and the replays entertaining. Particularly after the Dolphins failed to score 20 points in the previous four games.

Offensive eruption overdue

Essentially, Tua and Co. finally delivered what has been missing since the 28-point fourth quarter against the Ravens in Week 2. They needed every bit of it to outlast one of two remaining one-win teams in the league.

It was a win to feel grateful for but queasy about after watching Goff and the Lions score on all five first-half possessions.

The Dolphins’ offense consumed most of the third quarter with nearly 11 minutes of possession and the defense got a vital fourth-down stop on Detroit’s final drive of the game.

For the Dolphins, moving on means trying to somehow put together a patch for a secondary that is going to be targeted every week. Brandon Jones and Nik Needham are gone for the season and it’s beginning to look like veteran cornerback Byron Jones may not surface at all. He has yet to practice since offseason ankle surgery.

There just isn’t a cache of viable defensive backs lurking on the waiver wire and practice squads midway through the season.

Odd that veteran Erik Rowe was left inactive Sunday. Supposedly it was for the benefit of special teams, which didn’t exactly justify the decision as it turned out.

Ranks thin in secondary

Surely, some unemployed DBs will be brought in for auditions. Realistically, thought, the current cast is going to have to cowboy up and hope to get more help with pressure up front than we’ve seen.

Good news for Miami is the Dolphins are into the softest stretch of the season: Bears, Browns, Texans, 49ers, Chargers in the next five games. All currently under .500 except the 4-3 Chargers.

Those are winnable games, but by no means gimmees. Sunday’s close call at Detroit was proof enough these Dolphins can’t take anything for granted. Not with a defense that showed vulnerabilities early in the season and is now greatly diminished in pass coverage.

So, celebrate the highlight-reel showcase of Tagovailoa, Hill, Waddle Raheem Mostert and the rest of the playmakers. They put on a spectacular show Sunday.

They’ll need to repeat it every week for this team to remain on a playoff course.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns

Dolphins quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was knocked out of the game on the first play against the Jets.

Pressure Point: Loss to Jets shows how much Dolphins miss Tua

Quick, pass the Scope. This 40-17 debacle Sunday at the Meadowlands has to leave a sour taste in the mouth of everyone with any association or interest in the Miami Dolphins — players, coaches, fans.

That was a game the Dolphins could have and should have won, despite a mountain of adversity that began on their first offensive play when they lost quarterback Teddy Bridgewater to a dubious concussion ruling following a dubious intentional grounding call that spotted the New York Jets a 2-0 lead on a safety.

Yes, it took exactly one play for the NFL’s new amended concussion protocol to open a proverbial can of worms. Ironically, the Dolphins were first to be bitten by it, although those who claimed Miami gamed the previous protocol in handling Tua Tagovailoa’s head knock in Week 3 against the Bills (though the NFL investigation determined they did adhere to procedure) might call it karma.

On Sunday, Bridgewater passed the concussion evaluation but he was prohibited from returning to the game because the ATC spotter in the booth believed he saw the quarterback stumble.

Thus, we had our first brush with the term ataxia, defined as abnormality of balance/stability, motor coordination or dysfunctional speech caused by a neurological issue. That’s the new no-go trigger in the concussion assessment.

Concussion protocol still needs work

With that, the Dolphins were down to their third-string quarterback, rookie seventh-round draft pick Skylar Thompson with nobody else in reserve.

If players are going to be a stumble away from being removed from a game — and this isn’t confined to quarterbacks — then the league is going to need to allow more players to be active or at least available for emergency duty.

Still, the show always must go on, and the Dolphins seemed on their way to adding to an impressive resume of resiliency beginning the fourth quarter — despite also losing their best offensive lineman, left tackle Terron Armstead, and falling into a 12-0 hole.

Dolphins squander opportunity

Having cut the deficit to 19-17, they were driving for a go-ahead score to begin the fourth quarter at the New York 36. Running back Raheem Mostert was chewing up big chunks of yardage on the way to his first 100-yard rushing day as a Dolphin (113 yards, 6.3 yards per carry).

A false-start penalty followed by tight end Tanner Conner dropping a would-be first-down reception halted momentum. Jason Sanders missed a 54-yard field goal attempt that would have given Miami the lead.

Then a Jets storm surge swept away the Dolphins with 21 unanswered points. Just like that, Miami plunged from first to third in the AFC East, the formerly 3-0 Dolphins reduced to 3-2 with leaks springing every which way.

Perhaps most alarming, superstar receiver Tyreek Hill had his left foot in a walking boot after the game.

Dolphins defense a concern

Three-time Pro Bowl cornerback Xavien Howard missed the game with a groin injury, and their other star cornerback, Byron Jones, has yet to play this season.

The defense, which was regarded as such a strength of the team that it was kept virtually intact from 2021, has been looking more like unit that struggled the first half of last season than the one that earned that much respect during the second half. The pass rush has been paltry all season and coverage issues were magnified by Howard’s absence.

Next week they face the Vikings and Kirk Cousins, a top-10 quarterback who lit up the Bears on Sunday.

Most notably, the losses the past two weeks have shown how much Tagovailoa means to this offense. That was evident after Bridgewater replaced him against the Bengals. Then Thompson, who gained a cult following with an impressive preseason, demonstrated how different it is for rookie quarterbacks when pressed into emergency service in the regular season.

When will Tagovailoa return to action? That is the great unknown for a team that has fallen quickly off course.

While Mike McDaniel and his staff have plenty of concerns to deal with this week, it is clear that the hopes for a season that started so promising now hinge on Tagovailoa’s health.

Craig Davis has covered South Florida sports and teams, including the Dolphins, for four decades. Follow him on Twitter @CraigDavisRuns