The Dolphins reach the playoffs, but will likely have to face the Bills without Tua Tagovailoa

MIAMI GARDEN, Fla. — Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa embraced injured running back Raheem Mostert as they celebrated in the closing minutes.

Then, Tagovailoa hugged and congratulated his teammates as they left the field and headed back towards the locker room.

The Dolphins have reason to celebrate: They’re in the playoffs.

Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders nailed a 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left, and Miami forced a safety in the final seconds to beat the Jets 11-6 at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.

The Dolphins needed a win over the New York Jets and a loss by the New England Patriots to get into the postseason. The Buffalo Bills defeated the Patriots 35-23.

Now, both Miami and Buffalo will face each other for the third time this season when the postseason begins.

The bad news: Whether Tagovailoa will play or not will be Miami’s biggest storyline this week. And it’s looking like he might not be an option for the Dolphins’ first postseason trip since 2016 and just their third in the last 21 years.

“We definitely love Tua. The last time we played against the Bills, Tua put up a real good showing,” said Dolphins star receiver Tyreek Hill of Tagovailoa, who missed his second straight game after his second reported concussion on Dec. 25, 2022.

“So, just to have him out there – another captain, another leader – would be great.”

NFL PLAYOFF PICTURES: Dolphins earn AFC’s final wild card; AFC championship game may be at neutral site

Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders celebrates after kicking a field goal during the final minute of the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium.

Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders celebrates after kicking a field goal during the final minute of the fourth quarter against the New York Jets at Hard Rock Stadium.

Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, on the other hand, was quick to shoot down any suggestions about Tagovailoa being available.

“We’ll continue to take it day by day, and I will not even think about any sort of game, whether that’s this year or next year, until he’s fully ready to do so. And that comes with medical clearance,” McDaniel said of Tagovailoa.

The Dolphins struggled offense mightily without Tagovailoa as third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson started against the Jets in place of Teddy Bridgewater, who broke a finger last week.

McDaniel has been consistent in his messaging, noting doctors advised him placing any expectation or pressure for Tagovailoa’s return would be a negative for his recovery.

Tagovailoa remains in the NFL’s concussion protocol, and he would need to make significant strides to be cleared to return to practice – let alone play another game this season.

Tagovailoa gives Miami’s offense the best chance, but his health is by far the most important concern for the Dolphins’ future.

“Once it was articulated to me that it doesn’t help Tua in any shape or form if I project any sort of things besides ‘hey, what are we doing today and what are we doing to get better today,’ I haven’t even thought about it,” McDaniel said. “I just want him to take everything day by day. We’ll assess everything when he’s fully cleared – whenever that is.”

It seems as if the decision has already been made, and that’s the right one for Tagovailoa’s health.

For now, the Dolphins are celebrating a milestone.

Hill says he was emotional after the Dolphins’ win. He reached four straight AFC championship games and two trips to the Super Bowl with the Kansas City Chiefs, his former team. Now, he’ll return to the postseason in his first season with his new team.

“If you really understand the history of the Miami Dolphins, just the grind of the season, and just everything this team has been through, just thinking about that moment, it feels really good for this team,” Hill said.

At one point this season, the Dolphins rivaled the Chiefs for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Now, they’re sneaking in at No. 7 and heading to Buffalo.

The Dolphins’ season was on the verge of a collapse, losing five straight games after an 8-3 start, before their win over the Jets.

Thompson finished 20 of 31 passing for 152 yards with no interceptions or touchdowns, the Jets’ pass rush hurting his ability to see or hit the Dolphins’ playmakers down the field. The team converted 4 of 13 third downs and had 302 total yards of offense.

“It wasn’t always pretty, but we did what we had to do to win, and made the plays we needed to win,’ Thompson said. “And that’s all that matters.”

With the game on the line, Thompson completed two passes to receiver Jaylen Waddle and got Miami in position for their go-ahead field goal.

It was the second 50-yard field goal Sanders made this season; he was previously 1 of 5 from that distance.

“I’m just happy we were able to get it done for the guys,” Sanders said of the effort from special teams, which needed three field goals.

McDaniel finishes his first season as Dolphins coach with 9-8 record, thankfully Dolphins owner Steve Ross gave him his only coaching interview around this time last year.

But McDaniel and the Dolphins will quickly shift gears to Buffalo, which appears primed to make another deep postseason run – even more with safety Damar Hamlin’s recovery from cardiac arrest providing an emotional spark.

“It’s a playoff ball. It’s one game at a time. Anything could happen in the playoffs,” Dolphins cornerback Xavien Howard said. “It’s going to be our third time facing the Bills. They know us and we know them. So, we know it’s going to be a good matchup.”

Hill, who helped eliminate the Bills in each of the last two postseasons with the Chiefs, had a little more confidence in what the Dolphins could do – despite their quarterback situation.

“We’re going to do some real damage in the postseason,” Hill said. “I feel like once we get a lot of guys back off the injury list, we’ll be fine.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Dolphins reach playoffs, but Tua Tagovailoa’s status remains story

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