Dolphins lose to Falcons on game-winning field goal as Deshaun Watson questions linger

·5 min read

For a moment, it looked like the Dolphins were finally going to be able to escape the rut they had been trapped in over the past five weeks of the season.

Cornerback Xavien Howard made an acrobatic interception to give the Dolphins offense the ball at the Falcons’ 32, down 20-14 early in the fourth quarter.

But quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, replaying a scene from last week’s loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, threw an interception one play after the big takeaway. Unlike last week, this turnover was costly. Atlanta returned the interception inside the Dolphins’ red zone and Cordarrelle Patterson scored on a 3-yard run, pushing the Falcons’ lead to 27-14 with 12:55 left in the game.

Tagovailoa did his part to rebound, leading the Dolphins on back-to-back scoring drives, including a 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Mack Hollins to give them a 28-27 lead with 2:27 remaining.

But quarterback Matt Ryan led Atlanta quickly down the field with two big completions to rookie tight end Kyle Pitts, and kicker Yunghoe Koo made a 36-yard field goal as time expired to give Miami a 30-28 loss at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, its sixth consecutive defeat.

“There’s a slim margin for error,” coach Brian Flores said after Miami’s third walk-off defeat this season. “We’re on the wrong side of that for a lot of reasons.”

It was a performance for Tagovailoa that, while admirable, won’t completely silence questions about his future in Miami and the Dolphins’ continued pursuit of a trade for Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson.

Tagovailoa, like many of his starts this season, began fast. For the third time in 2021, he led the Dolphins to a touchdown on their opening drive. This time, it was a 14-play, 75-yard drive that included four third-down conversions and ended in a 10-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Isaiah Ford, the first of his career, to take a 7-0 lead.

He completed 32-of-40 passes for 291 yards and the first four-touchdown game of his career. But his two interceptions were debilitating. His first, with the team down 10-7, came inside the red zone with under two minutes left in the first half. Tagovailoa was targeting tight end Durham Smythe on a corner route but was intercepted by safety Jaylinn Hawkins. Atlanta made a field goal shortly before halftime to take a 13-7 lead.

Tagovailoa said Atlanta was in a Cover-2 defense, with two safeties covering half the field, and there was a miscommunication between him and Smythe. “I take full responsibility for that,” he said.

The second came right after Howard’s interception, a painful case of deja vu, and allowed Atlanta to take a two-score lead late in the fourth quarter.

As he did against Jacksonville last week, however, Tagovailoa responded well to the bad play. He led a nine-play, 90-yard drive and completed a 7-yard touchdown pass to running back Myles Gaskin, making it a 27-21 score with 8:35 left in the game.

And after defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah forced a Ryan fumble, recovered by cornerback Nik Needham at the Falcons’ 40, Tagovailoa connected with Hollins in the back of the end zone to give Miami a one-point lead with 2:27 remaining.

“I thought bringing us back in the fourth quarter, putting two drives together to give us the lead, that’s what you’re looking for in a quarterback,” Flores said. “From that standpoint, he put us in position to win the game, which at the end of the day, that’s all you can ask for from the quarterback. Obviously, some plays he wishes he had back, but overall, I thought he did a lot of good things.”

After the game, Tagovailoa’s first media appearance since the mid-week reports that the Dolphins could finish a deal for Watson before the Nov. 2 trade deadline, he said he was aware of the talk but “I just don’t listen to it.”

“It was a normal week for me,” he said. “I approached this game the same way I approach any other game.”

Flores said he had a conversation with Tagovailoa during the week about “all that was going on. The same conversation we’ve been having for a little while, which is he is our quarterback. His focus needs to be on our team, what we’re doing. In this case it was Atlanta ... and understanding that there’s some outside noise, some outside distractions, but just do everything he can to focus.”

“I really respect and appreciate [Flores’] transparency with where he’s at with that,” Tagovailoa said. “... He sits me down and he tells me what’s going on. He has conversations with [general manager Chris] Grier and he kind of keeps me in the loop with all of those things. I hear [the Watson reports] but I’m not really focused on that.”

NFL Network reported before Sunday’s game that the expectation is Watson will be dealt before the trade deadline. Watson hasn’t played for Houston this season as the FBI, Houston Police Department and NFL continue to investigate close to two dozen allegations of sexual assault against him. Watson hasn’t been criminally charged and NFL Network reported that if traded to another team, he would be expected to be available to play. The NFL hasn’t placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list, a tool used to suspend players while they are charged with a felony or violent crime.

In the short term, questions directed to the Dolphins about their interest in Watson and Tagovailoa’s future won’t subside until at least after the trade deadline. And for the time being, they’ll look to get out of a 1-6 hole with Tagovailoa as their quarterback, traveling to Buffalo to face the Bills next Sunday.

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