NFL Winners and Losers: Tua Tagovailoa's bad day in a big spot for Dolphins will linger all offseason

Frank Schwab
·14-min read

Tua Tagovailoa had his chance.

Nobody wanted Ryan Fitzpatrick to go on the reserve/COVID-19 list before Sunday’s game in Buffalo, but that gave Tagovailoa an opportunity to shine. He has been compared unfavorably to fellow top picks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert all season. Tagovailoa was in a position the other highly drafted rookie quarterbacks were not, and that’s playing for a postseason spot in Week 17.

And with the chance to have a big game against a Bills team with little to play for, and get his team to the postseason, Tagovailoa was awful. With a chance to clinch a playoff spot, the Dolphins lost 56-26. They were eliminated from playoff contention as the available wild-card slots were snagged by Cleveland, Baltimore and Indianapolis.

The Bills rushed out to a 28-6 lead on Sunday, playing starters in the first half. The Dolphins had some life after they cut the Bills’ lead to 28-13 in the third quarter, with Buffalo’s backups in the game, but Tagovailoa threw a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by cornerback Josh Norman. Then Tagovailoa threw another interception. And another.

Tagovailoa padded his stats once the game was out of hand, but that won’t fool anyone. He finished 35-of-58 for 361 yards. His three interceptions hurt. His one touchdown came with the Dolphins trailing by more than 30 points.

The Dolphins’ failure in a big spot is not all Tagovailoa’s fault, but it doesn’t help when compared to some of Fitzpatrick’s heroics.

Fitzpatrick has come through for the Dolphins many times, including a miraculous pass in Week 16 to set up the winning field goal in Las Vegas. He had basically taken on the role of relief pitcher, bailing out the Dolphins if Tagovailoa struggled. He wasn’t around to save them Sunday. It was Tagovailoa’s game. He would have been benched if Fitzpatrick was around, if he had started at all.

Dolphins coach Brian Flores made logical moves all season. Tagovailoa, the fifth pick of the draft, had to play. Flores made prudent quarterback changes, going to Fitzpatrick during games when he had to. There’s no guarantee the Dolphins would have been better with the inconsistent Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa had some good moments, too.

But the way the Dolphins’ season ended will reflect poorly on Tagovailoa. That’s just how the NFL goes. The Dolphins will hear plenty of questions over whether they have their quarterback of the future and whether it will be prudent to consider another one in the draft. It’s too soon to bury Tagovailoa, especially when the offense around him was depleted most of the season, but Tagovailoa didn’t do much to eliminate those questions. Herbert’s success, after he was drafted one spot behind Tagovailoa, will also hang over Tagovailoa and the Dolphins.

The pressure is mounting for Tagovailoa’s second season already. It’ll be a long time before anyone shakes the memory of what happened Sunday.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) reacts after being sacked in the first half against Buffalo. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)
Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) reacts after being sacked in the first half against Buffalo. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Here are the winners and losers from Week 17 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Ryan Tannehill to A.J. Brown and the play of the year: The Tennessee Titans were looking at overtime to determine the AFC South title.

Tannehill and Brown wanted to decide it in regulation.

Tannehill and Brown hooked up for a phenomenal 52-yard pass with less than 20 seconds to go in a tie game against the Houston Texans, giving the Titans a field-goal attempt on the final play of the game. As if there wasn’t enough drama already, Sam Sloman’s attempt hit the right upright and bounced through. The Titans won 41-38 and clinched the AFC South.

It’s amazing that the Texans allowed a pass that long to the Titans’ best receiver in the final seconds to lose the game.

The Titans deserve credit too. When they needed a big play, they came up with the biggest play of the 2020 season.

John Wolford: Even if Jared Goff returns next weekend and Wolford never starts another game, he’ll have a spot in Los Angeles Rams lore.

Wolford’s first NFL passes helped get the Rams into the playoffs. While the Arizona Cardinals struggled when Kyler Murray left with an ankle injury on the team’s first drive, Wolford was competent. The former standout in the defunct Alliance of American Football did enough to get the Rams to the postseason. Wolford threw for 231 yards and rushed for another 56, including a tough first-down run in the final minutes that practically put the game away.

Goff just had thumb surgery, so he shouldn’t be considered a lock to start in L.A.’s playoff game on Saturday against No. 3 seed Seattle, the NFC West champions.

Wolford isn’t the Rams’ preferred option, no matter how he looked Sunday. That concern is for later this week. For at least a few hours, Wolford should celebrate his first NFL start.

So will the Chicago Bears, who backed into a wild-card spot thanks to the Rams’ win.

Chicago Bears, playoff bound: In a perfect world, the Bears would have beat the rival Green Bay Packers and celebrated clinching a playoff berth.

The Bears clinched a playoff berth, but not with a win.

An Arizona Cardinals loss to the Los Angeles Rams got Chicago into the postseason. The Bears lost 35-16, allowing the Packers to clinch the No. 1 seed in the NFC. It’s not what the Bears wanted, but it still counts, even at 8-8. They will face the No. 2 seed Saints on Jan. 10 in New Orleans.

The Bears are the third team to make the playoffs after a five-game losing streak. The 1970 Cincinnati Bengals did it. The 2014 Carolina Panthers lost five in a row but won a bad NFC South at 7-8-1.

The Bears might not be thrilled with what happened Sunday, but playoff spots are hard to come by, and they have one.

Jonathan Taylor: The Indianapolis Colts’ rookie running back looked like a bust in the first half of the season.

In the second half, he looked like one of the best backs in the NFL.

Taylor had an enormous game Sunday, helping the Indianapolis Colts clinch a wild-card spot. Taylor rushed for 253 yards and two touchdowns in a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. Taylor’s 45-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter put the game away.

Taylor’s astonishing improvement late in the season is a big reason the Colts are going to the playoffs. They’ll keep leaning on him, too.

They will next face Buffalo (13-3) on the road Saturday at 1:05 p.m. ET.

Los Angeles Chargers and maybe Anthony Lynn: The Chargers will be interesting to watch the next few days.

It appeared Anthony Lynn would be fired. The Chargers lost a ton of close games, some in inexplicable ways. Retaining Lynn just because the Chargers won some games against bad teams late in the season wouldn’t make much sense, but NFL teams are often illogical.

The Chargers won their final four games of the season behind rookie Justin Herbert. Sunday’s win looks impressive on paper, but the Kansas City Chiefs sat many starters, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes. The Chargers played well in beating the Chiefs’ junior-varsity team.

Los Angeles will have some momentum going into the offseason. Now we just need to see who the Chargers’ coach will be.

Baltimore Ravens: Maybe you want to believe the Ravens’ surge has been due to a soft spot in the schedule. That’s fair.

But ignore the Ravens at your own risk.

Baltimore has been rolling. By the time the Ravens had taken a 24-3 lead about five minutes into the second half, they had 236 yards rushing. No team should be able to rush for that many yards in 35 minutes of an NFL game. The Ravens broke the franchise record for rushing yards in a game before the third quarter was done. They won 38-3 and are going to the playoffs, where they’ll face Tennessee on Jan. 10 in Nashville.

It’s a continuation of Baltimore’s late-season run. It has scored 34, 47, 40 and 27 points in the four games before Sunday. The Ravens hadn’t faced a winning team aside from the Cleveland Browns in that stretch, but it’s still NFL competition and the Ravens crushed it. They’re peaking.

Josh Allen’s MVP case: It was questionable if Allen should have played Sunday, with the Bills having to play next week and the Pittsburgh Steelers basically punting the No. 2 seed to them. But Allen had a shot to impress MVP voters since he played, and he looked the part. The Bills blew out the Dolphins to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs, where they’ll face Indianapolis in the opening round on Saturday afternoon.

Allen was great. He had 224 yards and three touchdowns by halftime. He sat in the second half. Allen might have a tough time passing Aaron Rodgers in the MVP race, but he has had the type of season that is on an MVP level. Even if Rodgers has been slightly better.

The Bills will be dangerous in the playoffs. Even in a mostly meaningless game Sunday, they showed how good they can be.

Browns fans, once they recover: Tuesday will be the 18th anniversary of the Browns’ only playoff game since the franchise came back to the NFL in 1999. That’s a ridiculously long time to go without a playoff berth.

The drought is over. The Browns are heading back to the playoffs after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-22 on Sunday. It wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t be the Browns if they didn’t put their fans through some agony.

The Steelers didn’t play starters but still had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion after a late JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown. The ball was thrown incomplete. The Browns almost mishandled an onside kick, but recovered in time. Baker Mayfield’s first-down run in the final minute clinched their playoff spot.

Enjoy this week, Browns fans. You have a playoff game against the Steelers on Jan. 10 to look forward to. It has been a long time coming.

Cam Newton: If Sunday was Newton’s last game with the New England Patriots, he’ll leave on a high note.

It was not a good season for Newton or the Patriots, but a win over the New York Jets in the finale gives them something to remember over the offseason. Newton played very well, with three passing touchdowns and another one on a reception from receiver Jakobi Meyers.

Newton might have needed a good Week 17 to impress future employers, if the Patriots move on. He showed he still has something left. At the very least, he can go into the offseason feeling good.

LOSERS

New Orleans Saints, and Seattle Seahawks too: The Saints have been historically unlucky in the playoffs the past few years.

This year’s gut punch is going 12-4 when the NFL is giving out only one playoff bye per conference.

The Saints are 25-7 the past two seasons and have played on wild-card weekend both years. All the Saints could do on Sunday was play their starters, beat the Carolina Panthers and hope for a Green Bay Packers loss and Seattle Seahawks win. The Saints did their part, blowing out the Panthers, but didn’t get the help they needed. Instead of a week off, the Saints will play the Chicago Bears on Jan. 10 in New Orleans.

The same goes for the Seahawks. They beat the San Francisco 49ers, giving their all-in hopes of catching breaks and getting the No. 1 seed. They went all out in a comeback win. And because they didn’t get the other results they needed, they’re stuck with the No. 3 seed at 12-4. They’ll host the Rams on Saturday at 4:40 p.m. ET.

New Orleans is good enough to get to a Super Bowl with three wins in the NFC side of the bracket. So is Seattle. But it’s a tough break to be that good and not get a week off.

Dallas Cowboys: Of course the Cowboys couldn’t come through when it mattered. Why would Sunday be different than the rest of the season?

Dallas could have stayed alive in the NFC East championship hunt with a win over a 5-10 New York Giants team that lost three in a row. They had won three in a row to stay alive. Dallas fell behind early and rallied in the fourth quarter, but much like their season as a whole, the rally was too late. The Giants won 23-19.

Dallas had a shot to score in the final two minutes but Leonard Williams was unblocked and sacked Andy Dalton on first-and-goal. Then CeeDee Lamb had a bad drop on an open pass over the middle. Then Dalton threw an interception on third down. That sloppy sequence summed up the Cowboys’ season.

There will be controversy over a Wayne Gallman fumble that the Cowboys will claim they recovered, but Gallman was ruled to have possession first. The Cowboys could have won the game long before then.

The Giants stayed alive for the NFC East crown, but ultimately was eliminated from playoff contention when the Washington Football Team defeated Philadelphia on Sunday night.

Before that, the Cowboys were sent off to a long offseason.

Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss: Two NFL legends had long-standing rookie records erased on Sunday.

Justin Jefferson is legit.

Jefferson passed Moss for the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie receiving yardage record during Sunday’s win against the Detroit Lions. Later, Jefferson passed Boldin for the NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie. Jefferson had another 100-yard game against the Lions, putting a bow on one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. He led the way with 133 yards in a 37-35 win.

Jefferson has been remarkable as a rookie. He might already be a top-10 receiver. The Vikings didn’t have the season they wanted, but they hit a grand slam with their first-round draft pick.

Mike Evans: Hopefully, Evans is OK. But he shouldn’t have been playing anyway.

The Buccaneers got a win. They clinched the fifth seed in the NFC, and there is some value in that. They get to play the NFC East champion Washington Football Team (7-9) in Round 1 of the playoffs. But losing arguably their best player in a game that had minimal benefit is tough.

Evans hurt his knee in the first half of a 44-27 win against the Atlanta Falcons. It looked bad on a slippery turf. We’ll see if he can play wild-card weekend or beyond. Had he sat on Sunday and rested, the Bucs’ backups might have won anyway.

It’s a potentially rough injury for the Bucs. And it was avoidable.

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