Dolphins’ offensive struggles too much to overcome in costly loss to Chargers

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In the span of eight days, the Dolphins have seen their playoff prospects turn from a formality to not assured.

Two weeks ago, Miami sat in first place in the AFC East, courtesy of a five-game winning streak.

But as their two-week stay in California came to an end Sunday night, the Dolphins had lost all of that momentum, staring at a 23-17 loss to Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, their second consecutive defeat.

The defeat dropped the Dolphins (8-5) two games behind first-place Buffalo in the division, with a short week to prepare for the Bills in Orchard Park, New York, on Saturday night, another prime-time matchup.

“Football is a humbling game and people adjust to certain things and present different issues,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said.

FiveThirtyEight’s projections still give the Dolphins a 74 percent chance to make the playoffs but a 7 percent chance to win the AFC East with four games remaining in the regular season.

A week after the Dolphins sputtered against one of the NFL’s best defenses in San Francisco, they failed to regain their rhythm against one of the league’s worst, a unit playing without multiple key starters, including All-Pro safety Derwin James Jr.

Miami generated just 219 yards, its lowest total since its Week 3 win over the Bills. The Dolphins possessed the ball for just a little over 20 minutes, going 3-for-17 on third downs. Miami again failed to control the middle of the field in their passing game, just like last week against the 49ers, and the offense failed to find answers.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa completed 10 of 28 passes — his 35.7 percent completion rate is a season-low — for 145 yards and one touchdown. The third-year player has only thrown for fewer yards in Week 4 against the Cincinnati Bengals when he was sidelined in the second quarter by a concussion.

“The defenses that we’ve played have been exactly what we’ve expected to play, what they’ve put on film,” Tagovailoa said. “It really just goes back to the details on how we play our offense and we’re not all dialed in with that.”

Outside of one explosive play — a 60-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill (four catches, 81 yards) in the third quarter — and a fortuitous fumble by running back Jeff Wilson Jr. recovered by Hill and returned 57 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, the Dolphins were barely able to move the football until the team’s final drive against a Chargers defense that entered the game ranked third-to-last in points allowed per game and second-to-last in yards allowed per play.

While the 49ers used their rangy linebackers to minimize passing windows into zone coverage, Chargers coach Brandon Staley said Los Angeles called on its cornerbacks to press Miami’s wide receivers and disrupt timing.

“It was more about their plan was better than ours and they outplayed us in that phase,” McDaniel said.

Tagovailoa had been changing the tone of the comparisons between him and quarterback Justin Herbert during what has been a breakout season.

On Sunday night, the quarterback selected in the 2020 NFL Draft one slot after Miami picked Tagovailoa thoroughly outperformed the Dolphins’ starter.

As Tagovailoa failed to manufacture scoring drives and elevate his offense, Herbert’s efficiency shined on a rare night he had both of his top pass-catchers — wide receivers Keenan Allen and Mike Williams — healthy and playing together. Herbert completed 39 of 51 passes for 367 yards and one touchdown.

The contrast in the performances is sure to reinvigorate commentary about the Dolphins’ decision to take Tagovailoa over Herbert. But the picks have been made and of chief importance is how McDaniel can get Tagovailoa — and the offense — to return to the form of the team’s five-game winning streak, albeit against lesser opponents.

The Dolphins trailed 17-7 at halftime, and Hill’s fumble recovery touchdown kept Miami from being scoreless after two quarters. The defense sacked Herbert four times and forced the Chargers to settle for three field goals on six trips to the red zone but lacked a momentum play to compensate for the offense’s extended struggles.

On what was effectively the game’s decisive possession — a 17-play, 79-yard drive that spanned eight minutes and ended with a 28-yard field goal to put the Dolphins behind 23-14 with 2:40 remaining — Herbert completed six of eight passes for 39 yards and three first downs. With under five minutes left, he moved the chains again with a 10-yard scramble on 3rd-and-8.

Prior to a field goal drive that cut the deficit to six points with 1:10 left, Tagovailoa had completed only 6 of 22 passes for 112 yards. And 60 of those yards came on his touchdown pass to Hill with 6:23 left in the third quarter, a play in which he broke away from cornerback Michael Davis after he fell down just as the ball was released.

Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) runs to score a touchdown after picking up a fumble by Miami Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. (23) in the second quarter during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on Sunday, December 11, 2022.
Miami Dolphins wide receiver Tyreek Hill (10) runs to score a touchdown after picking up a fumble by Miami Dolphins running back Jeff Wilson Jr. (23) in the second quarter during the game against the Los Angeles Chargers at SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California on Sunday, December 11, 2022.

Hill dealt with an ankle injury that kept him out of the Dolphins’ final possession but Miami was able to move the ball within field goal range, and kicker Jason Sanders’ 55-yard make gave the team a glimmer of hope before his onside attempt was briefly bobbled by a Chargers player before being recovered in a scrum.

Though Hill was able to play in the second half, his injury potentially magnifies issues for an offense that also lost Wilson to a hip injury late in the first half.

McDaniel said that neither player’s injury was significant enough to immediately rule them out for the Bills game but added the team would have to “tone it down a little” in their ramp-up to Saturday night, with a cross-country flight and a short week before leaving Miami for upstate New York.

In his postgame comments, McDaniel likened the Dolphins’ latest loss to a “punch to the gut.” He echoed comments from earlier in the week, calling their struggles part of life in the NFL.

But part of life in the NFL is also adjustments, enough of which haven’t been made in the last two games.

These adjustments will define the final month of the Dolphins’ season — and determine if they deserve to prolong it.