Dolphins avoid season collapse, clinch first playoff berth since 2016

Mike McDaniel embraces Dolphins owner Steve Ross following Sunday’s victory. (Photo courtesy of the Miami Dolphins)

The Miami Dolphins avoided losing their sixth straight game when Jason Sanders kicked a field goal that defeated the New York Jets 11-6 on Sunday. After once holding the No. 1 seed in the AFC East, Miami found itself on the brink of missing the playoffs for the sixth straight season. However, the Dolphins’ win and a New England Patriots’ loss ultimately granted Mike McDaniel’s squad the seventh, and final spot.

How did the season get to this point?

If someone had told you that Miami’s seventh-round pick was going to be starting at quarterback in the season’s final game with the playoffs on the line, no one would have believed the Dolphins could end their five-year playoff drought. Skylar Thompson, the 247th overall pick in last year’s draft, pulled off the impossible on Sunday, leading the Dolphins to victory in his second official start as a pro.

Miami took a chance on the 25-year-old quarterback from Kansas State, and that paid off. At first, Thompson was a longshot to make the team with veterans Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater both clearly ahead of him on the depth chart. However, the rookie immediately made a name for himself amongst the fans when he started and led Miami to victory in its first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Thompson went on to perform well in all three preseason games. He ultimately forced the front office to make sure he had a spot on the roster. If the Dolphons didn’t pick him up, another team surely would have.

Although Thompson made the 53-man roster, not even he could have envisioned that he would eventually be starting a game 18 weeks later with the season on the line. 

The former Kansas State Wildcat finished the Week 18 matchup against the Jets just 20 of 31 for 152 yards. While these numbers don’t jump off of the stat sheet, his play, and composed nature saved Miami from another season without a playoff berth.

“Skylar Thompson, a rookie, gets the start, doesn’t turn the ball over,” McDaniel said after the game. “I’m very, very happy with the entire locker room, the entire building, and I feel they wanted no part of this season to be over.”

McDaniel finishes his first year in Miami as one of three rookie head coaches to lead their teams to the playoffs this season. The career-long assistant had been under fire as the Dolphins’ implosion occurred toward the end of the season. Rumors began circulating that several coaches on the roster, including McDaniel, could be replaced, as a result of how quickly Miami collapsed this season.

However, a playoff berth all but saved McDaniel, and the rookie head coach must now prepare to take on the division rival Buffalo Bills for the third time this season on Super Wildcard Weekend. While Miami managed to split the season series with Buffalo and did look competitive in both games, there are far too many question marks surrounding the team to feel confident heading into this matchup.

“We’ll continue to take it day by day and I will not even think about any sort of game, whether that’s this year or next year ntil he’s fully ready to do so,” McDaniel said when asked about Tagovailoa’s availability for the playoffs. “Haven’t even thought about that – ready for either quarterback against the Bills.”

Tagovailoa suffered his second confirmed concussion this season during Week 16’s loss to the Green Bay Packers. This marked the third alarming blow to the quarterback’s head just this year. Concerns about the 24-year-old quarterback’s future made national headlines. While Tagovailoa would be the preferred starter for all Dolphins fans, his long-term health comes before any game, no matter the opponent or stakes the game holds. 

Additionally, Tagovailoa’s play prior to his injury was very concerning in itself. After once being the frontrunner to win league MVP, the former Alabama star was being heavily criticized, and blamed for the collapse Miami was in the midst of. 

Tagovailoa’s season has been the epitome of the “roller coaster” analogy. The third-year quarterback first led his team to three straight victories to start the season. During Miami’s fourth game, Tagovailoa suffered a concussion and was held out for the next two weeks. Miami lost every game that Tagovailoa missed.

With a 3-3 record and Tagovailoa back in the lineup, the Dolphins strung together five straight wins with the Hawaiian native stringing together the most impressive run of his career. Tagovailoa finished that five-game stretch an astounding 118 of 169 for 1,529 yards, 11 touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Miami was now 8-3, and it felt like atop the world in terms of how good the team, and Tagovailoa in particular, were playing.

But just like a rollercoaster, the ups, and downs continued for the team, and a disastrous December ensued. The Dolphins had a perfect, 8-0 record, when Tagovailoa started and finished a game. However, this quickly changed with Miami first losing to the No. 1 ranked defense, and McDaniel’s former team, the San Francisco 49ers.

After this Miami traveled back to the West Coast to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. The Dolphins had selected Tagovailoa one pick before the Chargers took Justin Herbert and the debate on which organization got it right essentially ended this evening. Herbert significantly outplayed Tagovailoa and sent Miami back home with its second consecutive loss.

At this point, the Dolphins had just four weeks left to right the ship, and three of the four remaining games were against division opponents. The Fins final road game of the season came next, this time against Buffalo. While Miami looked much better than it had in the two games prior, a fourth-quarter collapse in a snowy Highmark Stadium ultimately led to a third straight loss.

The Dolphins finally headed home to take on an inconsistent Packers team for a Christmas day showdown. While Tagovailoa did finish the game, the team announced he had suffered a concussion at some point in the second quarter shortly after. Two of the three costly interceptions the third-year man threw in this game came after he was already concussed.

During this four-game losing streak, Tagovailoa was 61 of 116 for 984 yards, six touchdowns, and five interceptions. He sat out the final two games of the regular season in concussion protocol.

McDaniel will surely roll with the starter if he is medically cleared, but how far will Miami realistically go based on their current form? 

With Miami’s season still alive, many of the question marks surrounding the team will be pushed aside with all attention focused on the Bills. However, the inconsistency of this team will surely call for major moves to be made during the off-season.

The Dolphins will travel to Buffalo for a Sunday, 1 p.m. do-or-die matchup against the Bills. The game will be broadcast on CBS4 in South Florida.

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Anthony Blanco is a senior majoring in Digital Journalism with hopes of pursuing a career in sports journalism. Anthony is passionate about covering sports and hopes to one day make his passion his profession.