Dolphins gut out final AFC playoff spot, but need Tua Tagovailoa back to have any hope of going further

The Miami Dolphins closed their regular season with a 11-6 win over their rival New York Jets on Sunday, setting up a date in the wild-card round next weekend after the Buffalo Bills also beat the New England Patriots.

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Due to injuries to Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) and Teddy Bridgewater (finger), the Dolphins were forced to play rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson in a must-win game and he did just enough for them to get across the finish line with a victory.

The Pittsburgh Steelers were also eliminated thanks to Miami's win. The Steelers would've clinched the final spot if both the Patriots and Dolphins had lost.

Rookie head coach Mike McDaniel's team is now lined up to play the Bills in the first round of the playoffs, their third game against Buffalo this season. The Dolphins and Bills split those matchups.

Miami is going to need a bit more juice from its offense to take down the Bills again and reach the divisional round. No one knows if he can play this soon, but the Dolphins likely need Tagovailoa to have a prayer in their road game against the Bills.

Jaylen Waddle (17) and Tyreek Hill (10) are dangerous weapons, but the Dolphins need Tua Tagovailoa back to maximize their impact in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Jaylen Waddle (17) and Tyreek Hill (10) are dangerous weapons, but the Dolphins need Tua Tagovailoa back to maximize their impact in the playoffs. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

This isn’t some secret, it’s rather obvious to anyone who has seen this team play without Tagovailoa. The offense hasn’t been able to reach its potential with Bridgewater and Thompson as their lead signal-callers. The Jets have a good defense, but an offense with Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle still on the field was held to 4.7 yards per play, well below Miami's season average. McDaniel might be able to scheme his way into some points in the wild-card round, but that job is decidedly harder without Tagovailoa.

With Hill and Waddle, the Dolphins have a wide receiver duo that can score on any defense they come across, but they can’t do it all by themselves. Baseline quarterback play is still needed to get this team back to scoring 30 points, which they don’t have now. Thompson completed 20 of his 31 passing attempts for just 152 yards against the Jets as the Dolphins were unable to get into the end zone all afternoon.

The hard part to deal with here is the fact that no one knows if Tagovailoa will be able to suit up for the playoffs. He suffered his second diagnosed concussion this season on Christmas Day, and had another high-profile head injury in late September that led to new NFL concussion protocols, all of which has cast doubt on his ability to be a factor in the playoffs.

"We’ll take it day by day," McDaniel said of Tagovailoa's status after Sunday's game, "and I will not think about any game, whether this year or next year, until he’s fully ready. And that will require medical clearance."

If Tagovailoa gets healthy and passes concussion protocols, the Dolphins are a threat to upset the Bills. If not, they might have to rely on Bridgewater or Thompson again, which isn’t ideal. At least with Bridgewater they have someone with real NFL experience, but Tagovailoa is their best option.

This is a good day, but also a challenging one for Miami. McDaniel got the team to the playoffs in his first year as head coach, but they face a major uphill battle to make it to the divisional round with the way things are looking. The Dolphins' fate will likely be decided by the injury news they receive this week. It’s crunch time and they need their quarterback.

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