Dave Hyde: Tua Tagovailoa needs to win a tough playoff game to silence his doubters

If you’re the Miami Dolphins, you’re sure of one thing Saturday night:

This is why you drafted Tua Tagovailoa.

I mean, you’re sure of that, right? Kind of?

Your defense is hobbled by injury. Your confidence is shaken after two staggering losses. You’re on the road facing both a good-not-great Kansas City team and elements straight out of your freezer’s ice tray. This franchise has no recent pedigree for this stage, either, as 23 years without a playoff win show.

“I’ve been saying a quarter century just because it’s more impactful,’’ Miami Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said.

Bless McDaniel, staying true to playful form in the face of this Saturday of reckoning. But this is the kind of opportunity to change a lot of can’t. Can’t win on the road. Can’t win a playoff game. Can’t beat good teams with a fun-frilled offense.

When you align the angles and twist the matchups to figure how the Miami Dolphins can win Saturday — how they really have to win — it starts with a simple idea one of how playoff games often are won: Tagovailoa has to be the most important player on the field.

His make-up is so much you want in a franchise quarterback. Smart. Driven. Team-oriented. He’s whomever you want to see on the field, too. He leads the NFL in passing yards. And he’s thrown seven touchdowns and six interceptions against winning teams. He directs the league’s second-ranked offense. And he’s 1-5 against playoff teams.

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He made a point after beating the downtrodden New York Jets a month ago to show a rare, angry side by sarcastically saying he’s keeping “receipts” of anyone questioning him and that, “Sure, I can’t win without Tyreek Hill,” after Hill sat out that game with injury.

He then directed a winning drive against Dallas. And fell flat with the larger team against Baltimore with the No. 1 playoff seed on the line. And then failed in the moment against Buffalo with the No. 2 playoff seed up for grabs.

And so here they are Saturday night. On the road. In the cold. And at Kansas City, where the Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs don’t lose much. These Chiefs aren’t the Super Bowl-winning Chiefs. But the idea holds that Mahomes delivers in games like these that often come down in some form to which quarterback plays better.

This is as tough an environment as Tagovailoa can face. First-time playoff starters like him are 17-38. Throw in Saturday’s forecast of temperatures around zero degrees at game time. He hasn’t played in a game under 20 degrees. But when the Dolphins drafted him, they believed he could win in tough conditions. They play in a division with New England, New York and Buffalo, after all.

“I think it’s just a feel of how everything is, what the ball feels like, what throwing feels like, what holding the ball feels like, if there’s wind, if there’s not wind, you have to take all those things into consideration,’’ he said. “But we’ll go there, we’ll test it out. and we’ll see what we have to do as far as adjusting or not.”

At his best, Tua wins with the “superpowers” quarterback coach Darrell Bevell defined: Accuracy, timing, vision and anticipation. McDaniel structured this quick-throw offense with those traits in mind. He also refined it to hide Tagovailoa’s deficiencies: His lack of size, arm strength, foot speed and general mobility.

The good defenses have caught up to the Dolphins offense as this past month has shown. Take away the outside runs, the receiver screens and the quick slants across the middle and you’ve neutralized this offense. Play one safety and the Dolphins will pass. Play two safeties and they’ll run.

That’s the simple version of why the Dolphins average 17.5 points against winning teams. They’ve been found out. Kansas City was one of those defenses the Dolphins struggled against, too.

Can McDaniel throw in a wrinkle this game? Tagovailoa play outside this box a little? Will Jaylen Waddle be able to play to give a second receiving threat opposite Hill?

Waddle’s status is large, of course. He left the loss to Kansas City in Germany on the second play with a sprained ankle. Question: Doesn’t this team need to find a capable third receiver?

That’s for the offseason, just as the larger questions about whether to give Tagovailoa the franchise-quarterback contract. Mahomes will show again Saturday the accompanying issues of paying a quarterback in a salary-cap league. His supporting cast is meh. Then again, he’s going against a Dolphins defense that might be down seven starters. Tagovailoa goes against the Kansas City’s second-ranked defense.

“Got to find a way to win,” Tagovailoa said.

You’ve always loved his attitude. You need this night to remind everyone why the Dolphins drafted him.

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