Tua stakes claim as potential rival for Mahomes in Dolphins’ chippy loss to Chiefs

In October 2018, long before he won the Super Bowl, there were questions about Patrick Mahomes.

Not about his talent, mind you. Even then, five starts in, you could see how special, how gifted he was. The MVP ceiling was real, even then.

But we didn’t know how long it would take for Mahomes to reach championship form. That’s when a quarterback is, quite often, at the peak of his football powers, that moment where his physical gifts coalesce with the determination to win a title.

Think Steve Young in 1994, or Troy Aikman in ’92. Brett Favre in ’96, Peyton Manning in ’06 or Drew Brees in ’09. Or yes, even Mahomes in ’19. You get the point.

Most quarterbacks need a few moments of postseason heartbreak before they’re ready to win a Super Bowl, but regular-season showdowns against the league’s best offer hints about how ready they may be to reach football’s ultimate pinnacle.

That was the backdrop for the Chiefs-Patriots Week 6 clash two years ago, when Mahomes was still in his first year as a starter, while Tom Brady sought to send a message to the young buck and hold him off, which he did in a thrilling 43-40 New England win.

Tua Tagovailoa and Patrick Mahomes dazzled fans on Sunday in a back-and-forth affair that could be the shape of an AFC rivalry to come. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)

It didn’t come easily. Mahomes struggled early, throwing two picks as New England raced to a 24-9 halftime lead, only to throw for 188 yards and four touchdowns in the second half.

It was a precursor to what turned out to be three more awesome showdowns since.

Here’s the point of this opening salvo: At some point in the fourth quarter of the Chiefs’ 33-27 win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, I couldn’t help but see parallels between this game and “Mahomes-Brady I,” some possible shades of a rivalry to come between not just the teams, but the quarterbacks, as well.

Tua plays role Mahomes did 2 years ago

Now, I’m not saying definitively that Dolphins starter Tua Tagovailoa will one day prove to be Mahomes’ great rival.

I’m saying that after their first showdown … well, it remains a possibility.

There’s always an overeagerness to find a counterpart for greatness. The question of “Who is Mahomes’ great rival?” could easily devolve into sports talk’s next version of “Should Pete Rose be allowed in the Hall of Fame?”

In other words: blech.

There are other young quarterbacks who have proven more than Tagovailoa has, players who deserve to be in this conversation. One is Buffalo’s Josh Allen, whose arm strength, second-reaction ability and love for the game could lift him to an MVP one day. Allen and Mahomes have already begun circling each other as potential rivals, albeit in a friendly way.

Another is Arizona’s Kyler Murray, an electric-but-diminutive playmaker, and Baltimore’s Lamar Jackson, provided he continues to improve as a passer, or even Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow, provided he can overcome, well, the Bengals.

And hell, maybe Mahomes’ great rival isn’t even in the league yet, as Trevor Lawrence and Justin Fields already look the part of franchise saviors at the college level.

But there’s something special happening in Miami. Specifically with its quarterback.

Tua Tagovailoa was very effective against the Chiefs' defense, which disguises itself well and pressures the quarterback. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)
Tua Tagovailoa was very effective against the Chiefs, which disguises itself well and pressures the quarterback. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

This game had shades of Mahomes-Brady I, only this time, Mahomes played the role of Brady, the established, elite quarterback trying to hold off the young gun. Tua played Mahomes’ role of plucky upstart, showing flashes of what’s to come, flashes of something to believe in after a slow start.

While the Chiefs rallied from a 24-9 second-half deficit to make it close a couple years ago, the Dolphins rallied from a 30-10 second-half deficit to make it close this time around. And Tua’s performance while doing so was notable, especially following a brutal third-quarter sack that resulted in a safety and put Miami in that 20-point hole.

After that play, Tagovailoa completed 17 of 23 passes for 204 yards, zero picks and another rushing score, all the while showing impressive calm and poise.

That’s no easy task against Chiefs coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, who is known for disguising his defenses as well as anyone in the league and pressuring a quarterback until he proves he can handle it.

Tagovailoa was missing multiple skill weapons, including DeVante Parker, Myles Gaskin and by the end of the game, Mike Gesicki. Yet, he repeatedly punished the Chiefs for blitzing with the type of on-time, well-placed dimes that Mahomes appreciated.

“That veteran mindset, you could see that when they were down in that game, he didn’t try to force it,” Mahomes said afterward. “He just took what was there and moved the ball down the field and found a way to get the game close.”

What Tua, Dolphins must do to make rivalry with Mahomes, Chiefs real

Of course, this moral victory was no relief to the surprising Dolphins, who fell to 8-5 in a resurgent season under second-year coach Brian Flores.

“I thought he made a lot of plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter, made some throws in tight windows, scrambled a little bit, put us in position to score some points,” Flores said of Tagovailoa. “But at the end of the day, I’m sure he’s not satisfied. None of us are. We’ve got to do a better job. We’ve got to make more plays to come out. We’ve got to make more plays than we did today. They made more plays than we did.”

Tagovailoa later said “it hurts a lot to come up short,” but it wasn’t for a lack of effort. The Dolphins played with a chippiness and edge to them, getting in a handful of skirmishes with the Chiefs, refusing to back down to the defending Super Bowl champions.

And even when the Dolphins trailed big in the second half, they still kept playing hard. Especially on defense, where their salty young group completed one of the hardest tasks in sports — intercept Mahomes three times in a game.

“It’s a good football team that will probably be in the playoffs,” Mahomes said, “and a team that will be a hard team to take out in the playoffs.”

The Dolphins are on the ascent, and how quickly they get to the point of being AFC contenders will ultimately come down to how quickly Tagovailoa, the fifth overall pick in this year’s draft, taps into his vast potential.

With his play on Sunday, Tagovailoa did nothing to persuade any of his believers to sell their Tua stock, even though Chiefs-Dolphins isn’t a rivalry yet and Tua-Mahomes certainly isn’t.

“After the game, I got to say what’s up to Pat,” Tagovailoa said. “You know, we exchanged a few words, congratulated him, but for me, it’s not more me versus Pat. We go into the game preparing for their defense, not their offense.”

But let’s face it: If these two teams meet in the playoffs this year, and Mahomes deals Tagovailoa the postseason heartbreak he needs to reach “Super Bowl form,” and the Dolphins continue to surround Tagovailoa with talent … yeah, there’s a chance we could one day look back at this game as “Tua-Mahomes I,” the first of multiple showdowns between two great quarterbacks.

Even Mahomes, never one to run from any challenge, appreciates Miami’s long-term potential.

“He’s going to continue to learn more and more and continue to get better and better, and it’s a bright future for the Miami Dolphins,” Mahomes said with a grin. “Just hopefully, not too bright.”

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