While the Miami Dolphins are enjoying the week in Los Angeles, the Chargers are trying to avoid starting another year with plans that don’t include playoff football.
Tua Tagovailoa and the Dolphins (8-4) know how Justin Herbert and the Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) are feeling right about now heading into Sunday night’s game.
Miami was 6-7 entering Week 14 one year ago; Tagovailoa was being pounded by critics doubting his NFL readiness and durability and the Dolphins’ fanbase was eager for the arrival of his replacement.
That was one coaching change and a few landmark trades ago.
“He’s a baller. He’s a great player. He can do a lot of great things,” Tagovailoa said Wednesday of Herbert. “I feel very blessed, I’m just happy to be where I’m at. … For me, I’m just very fortunate and very blessed to be here.”
Herbert has been fighting to keep his nose above the waves as the Chargers bail water. Stringing together consecutive wins is the only way L.A. finds the postseason after missing out in heartbreaking fashion last season.
The fifth and sixth picks in the 2020 NFL Draft, Tagovailoa went one pick before Herbert and during their rookie season won the only pro matchup between the QBs.
Tagovailoa, the leader in Pro Bowl voting and passer rating (112.0) with a month left in the regular season, pilots Miami into Los Angeles just one game behind AFC East-leading Buffalo. The Dolphins have the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL (380.2 yards per game) and No. 2 passing offense (290.5 yards per game).
Tagovailoa is squarely on the MVP radar, overtaking Herbert, a player many thought could be in this position in 2022.
Big plays and dynamic playmakers are setting the Dolphins apart. Tagovailoa has six TD passes of 25-plus yards and averages 9.0 yards per attempt. In San Francisco last week, the Dolphins lost to snap a five-game winning streak. Tagovailoa suffered a minor ankle injury and threw his first interception (two, in fact) since Sept. 29. The ankle is fine, but the Dolphins are determined to prove the 49ers’ fortune won’t be a blueprint to slow head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense.
“Everything that went wrong wasn’t a direct result of the quarterback,” McDaniel said, noting the eight called running plays is Miami’s low-water mark for designed rush attempts.
There’s a great chance McDaniels’ call sheet will highlight the running game at Los Angeles, and not just because left tackle Terron Armstead (knee) has been out and worked out on the side in the team’s practice at UCLA on Wednesday.
The Chargers allowed 154 rushing yards last week, the sixth consecutive game opponents have topped 150.
Looking for his first home win since the 19-16 rock fight with the Denver Broncos on Oct. 17, Herbert might have a case if he points to the supporting cast as the differentiator between these teams.
What Herbert wouldn’t do for a player with Tyreek Hill’s production at that position right now. Hill has six games with 125-plus receiving yards in 12 games with the Dolphins, who landed the former Kansas City Chiefs All-Pro via trade. The Chargers know Hill well. He had 12 catches for 148 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers last December.
The Chargers don’t have a wide receiver ranked in the top 30 statistically through 13 weeks and running back Austin Ekeler leads L.A. in receptions (85) and TD catches (five). Wideouts Mike Williams and Keenan Allen have shared the field for less than 50 snaps and the IR cache for the Chargers is a veritable Pro Bowl stock, including top free agent cornerback J.C. Jackson, defensive end Joey Bosa and left tackle Rashawn Slater.
The Chargers could be without three offensive linemen on Sunday. Center Corey Linsley (concussion) and rookie guard Zion Johnson (shoulder) were listed as limited participants Wednesday. Right tackle Trey Pipkins (knee) did not practice and missed Week 13.
“The games do mean more as you go,” Chargers coach Brandon Staley said. “Every week they’re going to mean more and more because you’re getting closer to the end and there’s a lot at stake in terms of positioning, but you got to pour yourself into that week, and that’s where our focus is, on Miami.”
Allen has rounded into form of late. He caught six passes for 88 yards and has touchdown receptions in consecutive games. Williams, listed as limited Wednesday with an ankle injury, didn’t play last week and has one reception for 15 yards in the team’s past five games.
That has meant more — and more — Ekeler, who has 104 targets as a receiver, ranks fourth in the NFL in receptions and leads the team with 589 rushing yards.
Herbert has continued the fight. He posted his 19th career 300-yard passing game last week — matching Andrew Luck for the record in the first three years of a career — but the production was again delivered in a painful loss (27-20 to the Raiders). Herbert’s 23 losses since his rookie season in 2020 are the most for any quarterback other than Matt Ryan (28).
Another defeat Sunday night could stack the deck against the Chargers with the Titans (7-5) up next in Week 15. Tennessee is one of seven AFC teams to already record seven wins in 2022.
“We need to win the rest of these games,” Chargers wide receiver Josh Palmer said. “For us, the playoffs really started last week.”
Miami has another primetime road game looming with massive postseason implications next Saturday night against the Bills.
“The bottom line is we have two opportunities to play in front of a national audience,” McDaniel said. “It’s something we’ve been building towards for the whole season in terms of how we play, but only one of which we can really do anything about in the immediate future.”
–Field Level Media