By Garrison Pulley and Kayla Morton
The Miami Dolphins regular season finale will no doubt be a tough one with a critical matchup away against the 12-3 Buffalo Bills. The Dolphins (10-5) are looking to secure one of four available Wild Card playoff spots while being in a five-way tie with the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens, Cleveland Browns and Indianapolis Colts who are all sitting at identical records.
Miami has the easiest scenario to make the playoffs, but the hardest week 17 matchup between all of those teams. Especially when you consider the fact that the Dolphins will be traveling to Buffalo to deal with the winter weather and possible snow-like conditions. Talk about a fish out of water.
Tagovailoa Named Starter Before Fitzpatrick Tested Positive for COVID-19
As Miami prepares for the tough matchup, starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been inconsistent and has given backup veteran QB Ryan Fitzpatrick a case to start and potentially secure a playoff spot. However, head coach Brian Flores named Tagovailoa the team’s starter in the postgame press conference following the Dolphins’ miraculous win in prime time last week in Las Vegas despite pulling him for the veteran. Hindsight is 2020, especially on the last day of the year, as Fitzpatrick has now tested positive for COVID-19 and is officially out for the regular season finale.
Tagovailoa Struggled in Week 16, Nearly Doubled in Production by Fitzpatrick
During the Dolphins’ last game, Tagovailoa struggled for most of the game and ended up being benched after going 17-for-22 with just 94 yards and one touchdown into the fourth quarter.
In nearly half as many snaps and a quarter of the time, Fitzpatrick would nearly double Tagovailoa’s yards and go 9-for-13 for 182 yards as well as a long TD to running back Myles Gaskin. He also put the offense in position to make two field goals, including the game-winner.
“I don’t make judgments or decisions based on one instance. There’s a lot that goes into the decisions we make. Not just one game or one quarter,” Flores said. “Tua has done a lot of good things for this team. He knows that. This team knows that.”
Tagovailoa Must Apply Fitzpatrick’s Season Teachings in Must-Win Game
Now, with Fitzpatrick out and not on the sidelines to continue mentoring the rookie, Tagovailoa will have to use the previous 16 weeks of Fitzpatrick’s coaching and go out and win this game for his team and the man who got him there.
Dolphins OC Points to Wide Receiver Inconsistency as Struggling Point
Dolphins Offensive Coordinator Chan Gailey also spoke on the play of both QBs and identified a key factor potentially being overlooked by many outside of Miami’s organization: wide receiver consistency.
The Dolphins had two WRs opt out before the season, legally, due to the NFL’s 2020 COVID-19 policy, leaving Miami scrambling even more at the position. In recent weeks the team has also been without No. 1 wideout DeVante Parker (hamstring) and No. 2 Jakeem Grant has been less than 100-percent due to various injuries, lowering his snap count.
Miami has played with rookies Malcolm Perry and Lynn Bowden Jr., players who each saw time at QB and RB in college and haven’t been sole WRs. Additionally, WR Mack Hollins has earned multiple starts, signing off waivers and Miami’s practice squad before 2020. Despite being on the receiving end of Fitzpatrick’s wild no-look pass against the Raiders, he has just 13 catches on the season. Finally, WR Isaiah Ford has been activated to the active roster after returning to the team after being traded to the New England Patriots mid-season.
All have filled in for Parker and Grant and the team is now getting tight end Mike Gesicki back after it was feared he had a season-ending broken collarbone suffered in week 14 against the Kansas City Chiefs. Thankfully for Miami, that wasn’t the case.
Tagovailoa hasn’t had the consistency with really any WR on Miami’s roster this season. So while he’s still learning the ropes of transitioning from college to the NFL, he doesn’t have the connection experience Fitzpatrick has learned over the years.
“He (Fitzpatrick) does have a little more experience with a few of the receivers. Having played with those guys last year and the first part of this year, he’s very comfortable,” Gailey said. “He has an idea of where they’re going to be and how they’re going to react in those situations. I think that part of it allows him to put the ball in some certain spots. It worked out for us.”
Flores Toying with Same Strategy of Playing Tagovailoa, Rudock
Fitzpatrick ended up saving the game for Miami, keeping their playoff hopes realistically alive and could be the better option to secure a playoff position to close out the regular season.
After the play, and in the waning minutes of the Dolphins’ win, Fitzpatrick was seen talking with Tagovailoa on the sidelines about his fourth quarter drives like he has done for the duration of the season.
Flores now has no choice but to stick with Tagovailoa as his starter, despite toying with the idea of playing both signal callers, but still hasn’t ruled out making more in-game changes again to do whatever it takes to win. This includes turning to now-backup QB Jake Rudock.
“The label is we’re going to do what we have to do to win. I owe that to Dolphins fans, players in the locker room and people in the organization,” Flores said postgame.
Flores has said that Tagovailoa would keep his job and added that it would be shortsighted to bench Tagovailoa just from his statistics from the Las Vegas game. As the Dolphins move closer to kickoff it’s clear Miami will have two options as it looks to close the game down the stretch.
Hawaii Native Has Seen Snow Just Once, But Could Start in it in Buffalo on Sunday
Tagovailoa could be playing in the first snow of his career and the Hawaii native knows he will need to improve in order to take down the Bills.
“Yeah, I’ve seen snow. I’ve gotten to play with snow a little bit. That was in Alabama my freshman year,” Tagovailoa said.
With five teams currently in the hunt for the last playoff spots, Flores and the Dolphins are prepared to do whatever, and play whoever it takes to win the game. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m. eastern with a forecast predicted for low 30’s and possible snow showers.
Editor’s Note: The NFL is currently in its contact tracing protocol for COVID-19 to determine if any players are close contacts to Ryan Fitzpatrick. At this time no other Dolphin has been identified. FPC Dolphins will continue to monitor this situation and update you as the situation progresses.
Kayla Morton contributed to this article.
– Kayla Morton is the Managing Editor for Full Press Coverage Miami Dolphins. She is also a co-host on the Full Press Fantasy Podcast. Like and follow on Follow @northdakayla74 Follow @FPC_Dolphins and Facebook.