Mike McDaniel was on the headset with his staff late in the Dolphins‘ game against the New York Jets on Sunday. He’d thrown the red challenge flag, contesting a completion from quarterback Joe Flacco to receiver Garrett Wilson. It was an uncomfortable moment, if only because McDaniel hadn’t won a challenge all season.
And the Miami coach told his staff: “How fitting would this be if I finally get one right, and it’s the 18th week, 17th game, fourth quarter.”
Finally, McDaniel’s luck changed.
The Dolphins had a season of streaks. They started 8-3. They lost the next five games. But in the same game that McDaniel ended his streak of losing challenges, the Dolphins ended their streak of losing games. Miami won 11-6. With help from the Buffalo Bills beating the New England Patriots, the Dolphins have made the postseason for the first time since 2016.
“It feels amazing,” said Skylar Thompson, the third-string rookie quarterback who started due to injuries to Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) and Teddy Bridgewater (finger). “Throughout this whole entire year for this entire football team, to experience the things that we experienced and to finish it like this, it’s pretty special.”
Skylar Thompson leads Dolphins’ game-winning drive
Skylar Thompson was clutch in the closing minutes against the Jets, helping the Dolphins secure their first playoff berth since 2016.
It was a downright bizarre game. The Jets were also playing their third-string quarterback, the veteran Flacco. And while we’d grown accustomed to watching the Dolphins play shootouts, Miami has simply looked like an entirely different team without a healthy Tagovailoa. But it’s not just his injury. The team also started a guard at tackle, because Miami has an absolute mess of injuries at the position. Cornerback Xavien Howard was clearly playing through a knee injury, which has caused his play to decline significantly.
But the Dolphins scraped together a victory. Now the question is how in the world they can scrape together a victory over the Bills, who host Miami on Sunday at 1 p.m. ET in the wild-card round.
In his postgame press conference, McDaniel wouldn’t commit to starting any of his quarterbacks. He reminded reporters that Tagovailoa remains in concussion protocol.
“We have a lot of question marks,” McDaniel said. “We’ll continue to take it day by day. I will not even think about any sort of game, whether that’s this year or next year, until he’s fully ready to do so, and that comes with medical clearance.”
Now, here’s the interesting part.
“Ready for either quarterback against the Bills,” McDaniel said. “Teddy was battling to be available [Sunday against the Jets]. We think that he was in a spot that he could have come through in an emergency situation, and Skylar got twisted up a couple times, too. So we’ll have to see how all that shapes out.”
Either quarterback, huh?
Does that mean: Bridgewater or Thompson? Alluding to Tua essentially being out.
Or does that mean: Bridgewater or Tagovailoa?
McDaniel never specified.
So we’ll head into this week with the Bills and Dolphins wondering who McDaniel will start at quarterback. And it is painfully obvious to say, but I’ll say it: The Dolphins’ chances of beating the Bills drop from foreseeable with Tagovailoa to unlikely with Bridgewater to remote with Thompson.
For Miami fans looking for glimmers of hope, on Sunday McDaniel finally managed to win a football game without Tua at quarterback. McDaniel finally figured out how to cook up a recipe for a W that didn’t involve leaning enormously on his quarterback and his wide receivers. The Dolphins got help from their defense, which has been so bad that there have been rumblings that DC Josh Boyer will get fired this offseason — and he still might.
Miami DE Christian Wilkins on Dolphins making playoffs
Dolphins DE Christian Wilkins spoke with FOX Sports’ Pam Oliver about Miami’s crucial win over the Jets to advance to the NFL playoffs. “We stuck together, and now we have the opportunity to keep going,” he said.
There was the sense that the Los Angeles Chargers and San Francisco 49ers figured out the Dolphins in Weeks 13 and 14. And that led to this late-season slide. That meant McDaniel had to reimagine his offense — even slightly — to get back to winning. I’m not sure if that’s exactly what he did, limping over the finish line against a pathetic-looking Jets team.
“You don’t want it to always be this hard within the game or within the season, but at the same time, for you to do anything special, you have to go through adversity,” McDaniel said. “You have to learn from it, and you have to improve.”
If that’s what they’ve done, then the Dolphins can compete in the postseason. Hopefully, they’ve studied the film, diagnosed their weaknesses and made the proper adjustments. If you squint at the film in Week 16 — before Tua’s costly late interceptions — you can see a changed team. If you look for the positives in this Week 18 win, you can see traces of a playoff contender.
But let’s be realistic. Thompson isn’t beating Josh Allen. Not even Bridgewater will prove a fair match for the Bills. And it didn’t sound like McDaniel was optimistic that Tagovailoa would play. The QB has suffered two documented concussions this year and might jeopardize his long-term health if he rushes back into contact.
Two things can be true.
1) Tua should not play if he’s not healthy.
2) The Dolphins are going to get bowled over without him.
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Prior to joining FOX Sports as the AFC East reporter, Henry McKenna spent seven years covering the Patriots for USA TODAY Sports Media Group and Boston Globe Media. Follow him on Twitter at @McKennAnalysis.
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