Tua Tagovailoa struggles in finale

Tua Tagovailoa had his chance.

Nobody wanted Ryan Fitzpatrick to go on the reserve/COVID-19 list before Sunday’s game, but that gave Tagovailoa an opportunity to shine. He has been compared unfavorably to fellow top picks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert all season. But Tagovailoa was in a position the other highly drafted rookie quarterbacks were not, and that’s playing for a postseason spot in Week 17.

And with the chance to have a big game against a Buffalo Bills team with little to play for, and get his team to the postseason, Tagovailoa was awful. With a chance to clinch a playoff spot, the Dolphins lost 56-26.

The Bills rushed out to a 28-6 lead, playing starters in the first half. The Dolphins had some life after they cut the Bills’ lead to 28-13 in the third quarter, with Buffalo’s backups in the game, but Tagovailoa threw a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown by Bills cornerback Josh Norman. Then Tagovailoa threw another interception. And another.

Tagovailoa padded his stats a bit once the game was out of hand, but that won’t fool anyone. He finished 35-of-58 for 361 yards. His three interceptions hurt. His one touchdown came with the Dolphins trailing by more than 30 points.

The Dolphins weren’t eliminated from the playoff race with the loss. An Indianapolis Colts loss would have put them in as a wild-card team. But nothing could eliminate the bad taste from Tagovailoa’s rough day.

The Dolphins’ failure in a big spot is not all Tagovailoa’s fault, but it doesn’t help when compared to some of Fitzpatrick’s heroics.

Fitzpatrick has come through for the Dolphins many times, including a miraculous pass in Week 16 to set up a game-winning field goal. He had basically taken on the role of relief pitcher, bailing out the Dolphins if Tagovailoa struggled. He wasn’t around to save them on Sunday. It was Tagovailoa’s game. He would have been benched if Fitzpatrick was around, if he had started at all.

Dolphins coach Brian Flores made logical moves all season. Tagovailoa, the fifth pick of the draft, had to play. Flores made prudent quarterback changes, going to Fitzpatrick during games when he had to. There’s no guarantee the Dolphins would have been better with the inconsistent Fitzpatrick. Tagovailoa had some good moments, too.

But the way the Dolphins season ended will reflect poorly on Tagovailoa. That’s just how the NFL goes. The Dolphins will hear plenty of questions over whether they have their quarterback of the future and whether it will be prudent to consider another one in the draft. It’s way too soon to bury Tagovailoa, especially when the offense around him was depleted most of the season, but Tagovailoa didn’t do much to eliminate those questions either. Herbert’s success, after he was drafted one spot behind Tagovailoa, will also hang over Tagovailoa and the Dolphins.

The pressure is mounting for Tagovailoa’s second season already. It’ll be a long time before anyone shakes the memory of what happened Sunday.

Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) reacts after being sacked in the first half against Buffalo. (AP Photo/Adrian Kraus)

Here are the winners and losers from Week 17 of the NFL season:

WINNERS

Baltimore Ravens: Maybe you want to believe the Ravens’ surge has been due to a soft spot in the schedule. That’s fair.

But ignore the Ravens at your own risk.

Baltimore has been rolling. By the time the Ravens had taken a 24-3 lead about five minutes into the second half, they had 236 yards rushing. No team should be able to rush for that many yards in 35 minutes of an NFL game. The Ravens broke the franchise record for rushing yards in a game before the third quarter was done. They won 38-3 and are going to the playoffs.

It’s a continuation of Baltimore’s late-season run. They had scored 34, 47, 40 and 27 points in the four games before Sunday. They hadn’t faced a winning team aside from the Cleveland Browns in that stretch, but it’s still NFL competition and the Ravens crushed it. They’re peaking.

Josh Allen’s MVP case: It was questionable if Allen should have played on Sunday, with the Bills having to play next week and the Pittsburgh Steelers basically punting the No. 2 seed to them. But Allen had a shot to impress MVP voters since he played, and he definitely looked the part. The Bills blew out the Dolphins to clinch the No. 2 seed in the AFC.

Allen was great. He had 224 yards and three touchdowns by halftime. He sat in the second half. Allen might have a tough time passing Aaron Rodgers in the MVP race, but he has had the type of season that is clearly on an MVP level. Even if Rodgers has been slightly better.

The Bills will be dangerous in the playoffs. Even in a mostly meaningless game Sunday, they showed how good they can be.

Browns fans, once they recover: Tuesday will be the 18th anniversary of the Browns’ only playoff game since the franchise came back to the NFL in 1999. That’s a ridiculously long time to go without a playoff berth.

The drought it over. The Browns are heading back to the playoffs after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-22 on Sunday. It wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t be the Browns if they didn’t put their fans through some agony.

The Steelers didn’t play starters but still had a chance to tie the game with a two-point conversion after a late JuJu Smith-Schuster touchdown. The ball was thrown incomplete. The Browns almost mishandled an onside kick, but barely recovered in time. Baker Mayfield’s first-down run in the final minute clinched their playoff spot.

Enjoy this week, Browns fans. You have a playoff game to look forward to. It has been a long time coming.

Cam Newton: If Sunday was Newton’s last game with the New England Patriots, he’ll leave on a high note.

It was not a good season for Newton or the Patriots but a win over the New York Jets in the finale gives them something to remember over the offseason. Newton played very well, with three passing touchdowns and another one on a reception from receiver Jakobi Meyers.

Newton might have needed a good Week 17 to impress future employers, if the Patriots move on. He showed he still has something left. At very least, he can go into the offseason feeling good.

LOSERS

Dallas Cowboys: Of course the Cowboys couldn’t come through when it mattered. Why would Sunday be different than the rest of the season?

Dallas could have stayed alive in the NFC East championship hunt with a win over a 5-10 New York Giants team that lost three in a row. They had won three in a row to stay alive. Dallas fell behind early and rallied in the fourth quarter, but much like their season as a whole, the rally was too late. The Giants won 23-19.

Dallas had a shot to score in the final two minutes but Leonard Williams was unblocked and sacked Andy Dalton on first-and-goal. Then CeeDee Lamb had a bad drop on an open pass over the middle. Then Dalton threw an interception on third down. That sloppy sequence summed up the Cowboys season pretty well.

There will be controversy over a Wayne Gallman fumble that the Cowboys will claim they recovered, but Gallman was ruled to have possession first. The Cowboys could have won the game long before then.

The Giants stayed alive for the NFC East crown, pending the result of the Sunday night game between the Washington Football Team and Philadelphia Eagles. The Cowboys were sent off to a long offseason.

Anquan Boldin and Randy Moss: Two NFL legends had longstanding rookie records erased on Sunday.

Justin Jefferson is legit.

Jefferson passed Moss for the Minnesota Vikings’ rookie receiving yardage record during Sunday’s game against the Detroit Lions. Then later Jefferson passed Boldin for the NFL record for receiving yards by a rookie. Jefferson had another 100-yard game against the Lions, putting a bow on one of the greatest rookie seasons ever. He led the way with 133 yards in a 37-35 win.

Jefferson has been remarkable as a rookie. He might already be a top-10 NFL receiver. The Vikings didn’t have the season they wanted, but they hit a grand slam with their first-round pick.

Mike Evans: Hopefully, Evans is OK. But he shouldn’t have been playing anyway.

The Buccaneers got a win. They clinched the fifth seed in the NFC, and there is some value in that. They get to play the NFC East champs. But losing arguably your best player in a game that had minimal benefit is tough.

Evans hurt his knee in the first half of a 44-27 win against the Atlanta Falcons. It looked bad on a slippery turf. We’ll see if he can play wild-card weekend or beyond. Had he sat on Sunday and rested, the Bucs backups might have been able to win anyway. Or the Los Angeles Rams, without Jared Goff, would have lost and the Bucs would have gotten the No. 5 seed that way.

Either way, it’s a potentially rough injury for the Bucs. And it was avoidable.

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