Sunday in the chill of Baltimore felt like the biggest game of this NFL season for the Miami Dolphins.
It was. But then it wasn’t.
So now the next one is.
The embarrassing comeuppance of Sunday’s 56-19 Dolphins road loss to the Ravens meant the regular season will now end for Miami next week in a way that seems fitting:
At home. Versus the division rival, nemesis Buffalo Bills. In a game with a must-win feel and everything — including battered Super Bowl dreams — on the line.
“We’re right where we need to be as a team, regardless of the outcome of today, and we’ll be better for it,” said quarterback Tua Tagovailoa after this debacle. “Hopefully we get to see these guys again” — meaning in the AFC Championship Game.
Happy New Year, everybody, though Sunday gave a heavy hangover to Dolfans courtesy Lamar Jackson’s five touchdown passes and late injuries to quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s left shoulder and linebacker Bradley Chubb’s knee. Tua’s injury did not appear serious. Chubb‘s did, as coach Mike McDaniel s leaned in to console him before he was carted off the field. Cornerback Xavien Howard also left injured.
“Seeing a competitor go down and then have to get a cart is always pretty emotional,” said McDaniel afterward.
It was his call to keep starters like Chubb in late with the game out of reach because they asked to stay in.
“I would like a time machine for sure,” he admitted.
Now the 2023 season tips into ‘24 with ultimate stakes at play in the crescendo to the most exciting Dolphins season this century, one now 11-5.
Baltimore decisively clinched the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed and its great reward of a first-round bye and home-field advantage throughout. The reward could have been Miami’s had it won Sunday and again next week.
Instead, now, the Dolphins must beat Buffalo in a winner-take-all next week — the AFC East title and a guaranteed home playoff game the stakes. Miami last won its division in 2008; that’s how big this is.
Miami must win its regular-season finale not only to clinch the division, but to rekindle dreams of a first Super Bowl appearance since the 1984 season.
Because those dreams had a rude, splash-of-water kind of awakening on Sunday.
Baltimore’s domination mirrored the final score. There was nothing about Miami’s loss that was unwarranted. No officiating. Temps in the 40s not a factor. No excuses.
Well, yes., Miami was missing two of its three most dynamic offensive players with Jaylen Waddle and Raheem Mostert both out injured. Blame that if you must find solace in an excuse.
Or acknowledge the Ravens are simply a level above in the AFC just as San Francisco appears to be in the NFC.
Miami scored on the opening drive when Tua Tagovailoa found Cedrick Wilson Jr. for an 8-yard touchdown.
But the game would unravel fast.
That began, for me, when Tyreek Hill, of all receivers, dropped an easy touchdown pass in the end zone and the Fins had to settle for a field goal and a 10-7 lead. (Tua had an OK six catches for 76 yards but later said this was one of the worst games of his career.)
Another Miami field goal drew Miami within 14-13.
The the Dolphins implosion really kicked in.
Baltimore’s Jackson hit a 75-yard scoring pass to Zay Flowers that saw DeShon Elliott and Eli Apple wilting in coverage. Tagovailoa was quickly intercepted, another Jackson TD pass of 35 yards to Isaiah Likely resulted, and it was 28-13 at the half.
The Ravens’ No. 1-ranked defense turned Tagovailoa mortal and likely ended his long shot run in the league MVP race. He had two interceptions and a season-high 16 incomplete passes before leaving late after the injury.
Jackson-to-Likely again made is 35-13 after three quarters.
Tagovailoa flipped a 1-yard scoring to Wilson in the fourth to make it 35-19 after a two-point try failed.
Baltimore countered with Jackson’s fifth TD pass, then poured it on with a late scoring run, and then another TD pass from backup Tyler Huntley for the absurdly unexpected final score.
A sixth TD pass in a runaway game seemed a bit showy by the Ravens.
“It is what it is,” responded Fins defensive star Christian Wilkins. “You have to defend to the end.”
The Ravens had staked their claim to being the Super Bowl favorite.
Jackson had staked his to being NFL MVP for the second time in his career. He was brilliant all day, abetted by a letdown of a defensive performance by the Dolphins, one equally poor vs. run and pass.
“I feel everything is still in front of us for what we want to accomplish as a team,” said Tagovailoa. “We know we still have everything in front of us.”
The Dolphins, seemingly put in their place, are left to regroup now for their new biggest game of the year.
To keep hold of the AFC East crown that had seemed firmly in the Fins’ hands all year.
And to restore hopes that the Super Bowl — even with Sunday’s brutal knockdown — is still in reach.
This story was originally published December 31, 2023, 4:14 PM.