Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa went from the pedestrian numbers he had in December’s embarrassing outing to totals that challenged his career high in yardage.
Coach Mike McDaniel found ways to get the offense going against Chargers coach Brandon Staley’s defensive game plan that shut Miami down last year.
All the while, the Dolphins’ usually stout run defense, so reliable all last season, was run over.
But Miami got the final defensively stop to seal the victory after Tagovailoa combined with star receiver Tyreek Hill for their second touchdown connection, a go-ahead score that turned into the winning points.
The Dolphins topped the Chargers, 36-34, for a statement season-opening victory Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium.
Tagovailoa went 28 of 45 for 466 yards — three shy of his career best — three touchdowns and one interception. The passing yardage was fourth-most in a Week 1 game in NFL history.
He is now 2-1 in his career against Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert, who was 23 of 33 for 228 yards and a touchdown, plus another rushing score.
“I don’t look at it as, ‘Hey, I’m competing to be better than this person or that person,’” Tagovailoa said of the constant comparisons between he and Herbert, members of the same 2020 draft class with Herbert selected one pick after Tagovailoa. “My job is plain and simple, and it’s to help our guys win a football game and help lead our team to where we want to go, and that’s the Super Bowl.”
Hill had 215 yards, tying for second-best in his career and tops for his time in Miami, on 11 receptions. His receiving total was third-most in an opener.
“That’s an offseason of — more than just two guys, but those two guys are a great example — of not focusing on anything but their craft,” McDaniel said of the duo’s budding connection in Year 2 together. “Those are two guys that really worried about the right stuff. That’s the ultimate hope as a coach — all that time invested and those high standards that you’re holding yourself to, that that’s rewarded. I think, (Sunday), it definitely was.”
The Chargers did their work on the ground, compiling 234 rushing yards, with running back Austin Ekeler leading the way for 117 yards and Justin Kelley behind him with 91. Each had a touchdown.
Tagovailoa found Hill for an over-the-shoulder 4-yard touchdown pass with 1:45 to play, but kicker Jason Sanders missed the extra point to only give Miami a 2-point advantage, 36-34. Facing third-and-10 on the drive, Tagovailoa unloaded a deep ball to Hill for a sliding 47-yard catch. Then, he hit River Cracraft to get Miami inside the 10 before the winning touchdown.
The Dolphins sealed it with Herbert backed up from an intentional-grounding penalty. Jaelan Phillips, playing in his hometown of Los Angeles, combined for the clinching sack with cornerback Justin Bethel.
“That’s grit right there. That’s when you dig deep. After 80-something plays, you’re tired out there, game on the line, that’s when the real dogs come out,” Phillips said. “I thought our defense did an amazing job (making a stand late in the game), but really, shout out to the offense. They carried us.”
McDaniel got a revenge win against Staley after last season’s Week 14 loss in L.A. where his team was outgained, 432-219, and Tagovailoa was kept to 10 of 28 passing, thanks in large part to Staley’s plan of pressing Dolphins receivers and taking away the middle of the field.
But McDaniel was not making it about he and Staley.
“I find it super insulting to players to make anything about myself or a competition between me and another guy who both are not playing,” McDaniel said. “It’s really irrelevant to me only because the second I start saying, ‘I beat somebody,’ I have lost what this job is and it is erroneous.”
“Huge credit to the offensive line, who I thought really put their best foot forward against some challenging players,” McDaniel said.
Tagovailoa gave Miami a 27-24 lead deep into the third quarter when he and Hill combined for a perfect 35-yard scoring strike down the right sideline. Hill left Chargers cornerback J.C. Jackson, who intercepted Tagovailoa on the Dolphins’ previous offensive play, in the dust for the score that was followed by half a lap around the SoFi Stadium field, tossing his helmet and saluting the many Dolphins fans in attendance.
“I was inside-releasing the whole game, and that’s what the corner was expecting,” said Hill, who added he wanted to turn the momentum after Jackson’s interception. “Sure enough, I hit him with an inside move, and I was open. I was able to use my speed. Tua delivered a great pass.”
Hill added about his quarterback: “Tua’s a baller, bro. He definitely showed it (Sunday).”
Los Angeles answered that touchdown with both of its backs. Ekeler sparked the drive with a 35-yard reception left alone in the flat, and Kelley punched it in for a 2-yard touchdown.
Trailing, 31-27, the Dolphins got to within a point on a 45-yard field goal from Jason Sanders. With 3:53 to play, the Chargers got the 3 points back on a Cameron Dicker field goal.
The Chargers opened the second half with a touchdown drive that didn’t even involve a completion. Herbert snuck in the score after Ekeler marched them down the field on the ground. Two pass interference penalties went against Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard in the red zone, setting up the Herbert touchdown plunge.
Miami did not answer immediately, as Tagovailoa was intercepted by Jackson, throwing to Braxton Berrios 1-on-1 in the end zone. But the Dolphins were set up with great field position for the quarterback’s strike to Hill after Kader Kohou sacked Herbert at the Chargers’ 1-yard line.
The Dolphins took a 20-17 halftime lead after Tagovailoa got them into field-goal range with 9 seconds left in the first half. First, he found Waddle, who ran out of bounds following a 22-yard pass to the sideline. Then, he drew a defensive pass interference against Jackson on a throw to Erik Ezukanma.
With the untimed down, Miami kicker Jason Sanders connected on a 41-yard field goal.
On his previous drive, Tagovailoa threw a touchdown to River Cracraft in the back of the end zone, as he had the option of an open Cracraft or open tight end Durham Smythe in front of him. McDaniel went for a fourth-and-7 from the Chargers’ 42-yard line on the possession, and Tagovailoa picked it up, finding Smythe open on an out pattern.
Chargers kicker Cameron Dicker tied the game at 17 with a 50-yard field goal 9 seconds before halftime. It preceded Miami’s two-play trek for the field goal before half.
Los Angeles went ahead, 14-10, earlier in the second quarter. Ekeler had an enormous hole up the middle for a 55-yard run where safety DeShon Elliott missed an open-field tackle. Elliott later gave up the 1-yard touchdown in coverage against tight end Donald Parham Jr.
The Chargers struck first with a 94-yard drive that saw 58 of them come on the ground and was capped by a 1-yard touchdown run from Ekeler. Herbert found Keenan Allen for a 36-yard completion on the series, where linebacker David Long Jr. ended up on the wide receiver.
The Dolphins responded immediately with Raheem Mostert scoring from 2 yards out. Tagovailoa found Berrios, who also had two key receptions late, on a third-and-long that was compounded by a Bosa facemask penalty.
The Chargers’ initial score came after the Dolphins had a promising opening drive Sunday spoiled when an under-center snap from center Connor Williams to Tagovailoa was fumbled and recovered by Los Angeles defensive tackle Nick Williams. A 35-yard catch-and-run from Tagovailoa to Jaylen Waddle on a slant set Miami up in the red zone after two offensive plays.
The fumble was one of three instances where a snap was mishandled between Tagovailoa and Williams. The other two were recovered by Miami.
Miami led, 10-7, early in the second quarter when they settled for a short Jason Sanders field goal. After Tagovailoa and Hill had back-to-back completions to the deep middle, Hill had a play, originally ruled a catch at the pylon inside the 1-yard line, reversed upon review.