5 Instant Takeaways: Miami Dolphins, Tua Tagovailoa beat Cincinnati Bengals
MIAMI GARDENS — Are the Miami Dolphins a legitimate AFC contender?
That's a thumbs up.
Miami rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, playing with an injured thumb on his left throwing hand, passed for a career-high 296 yards in Sunday's defeat of the Bengals at Hard Rock Stadium.
It was Miami 19, Cincinnati 7, and while it wasn't always pretty, it was dominant in the second half. Oh to be a fly on the wall in the Dolphins' locker room at halftime.
Miami trailed the putrid Bengals 7-6 at halftime because they were undisciplined, sloppy and in somewhat of a fog. In the second half, the Dolphins defense was sharp.
And Tua was sharper than ever.
The Dolphins are 8-4, a half game behind the Bills in the AFC East race. Miami is 7-1 in its last eight games.
Things got ugly in the fourth quarter, as both teams scuffled on the field after Jakeem Grant was drilled before he had a chance to catch a punt. Dolphins coach Brian Flores was on the field and irate, held back by lineman Jesse Davis and director of team security Drew Brooks.
DeVante Parker and Mack Hollins were ejected following that incident. Earlier in the game, Xavien Howard was ejected in a separate incident.
Miami played the second half with great emotion after a flat first half. The Dolphins did not live up to their status as significant favorites early on, but then rebounded nicely.
It was unfortunate that rookie quarterback Joe Burrow was not available to give the Bengals a legitimate opportunity to compete. But it's doubtful the Bengals, now 2-9-1, would have anyway.
Miami won because Tagovailoa came out on fire in the second half, after an unsteady first half. And because the defense, led by Kyle Van Noy and Shaq Lawson (2.5 sacks apiece) locked things down in the second half.
The Dolphins also won because kicker Jason Sanders was 4-for-4.
Tua-Gesicki connection heats up
Dolphins tight end Mike Gesicki caught a touchdown pass from Tagovailoa. Gesicki also snared an amazing one-handed grab and had a career-high nine catches.
Gesicki came alive on Sunday and his chemistry and connection with the rookie quarterback seems to be warming up.
So much has been made of Gesicki's connection with veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, but Gesicki and Tua appear to be forming a connection, too.
In fact, no tight end in the NFL was averaging as many yards per catch as Gesicki was, entering play.
Tagovailoa also seemed intent to deliver the ball to Parker early and often. He's smart enough to know Geciski and Parker are his two most dangerous weapons.
Howard's eighth interception overshadowed
Howard had his league-leading eighth interception in the first quarter.
After allowing a few passes, Howard made a big play by picking off Brandon Allen, who was attempting a deep pass to Tyler Boyd. The interception was made down near the Dolphins' goal line.
Howard is off to one of the best pass-intercepting starts in NFL history. He intercepts passes more often than legends such as Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, Champ Bailey and Darrelle Revis did in their career.
Howard also matched Marcus Peters and Richard Sherman with 20 interceptions in his first 52 career games. Only Ed Reed, with 21, had more.
But near the end of the first half, Howard was ejected for getting too handsy with Boyd on the sideline after a play. Officials said the two threw punches, but it looked more like shoving and swiping.
Still, Dolphins coach Brian Flores was not pleased with the lack of poise and composure shown by Howard. He's too valuable a player to lose on an unnecessary play.
After Howard was ejected, rookie first rounder Noah Igbinoghene entered the game. Igbinoghene had struggled early in the season, but coaches said he was improving.
Miami's sloppiness, penalties dampen first half
The Dolphins entered play as the third-fewest penalized team in the NFL.
Then, in the first half, they committed six penalties. In fact, all six penalties were in an unattractive second quarter.
Miami had a penalty that cost the team a touchdown. When the Dolphins successfully converted a direct snap to punter Matt Haack for a fake-field goal touchdown, it was negated.
Dolphins rookie offensive tackles Austin Jackson and Robert Hunt were called for illegal formation as they did not report as eligible receivers.
Linebacker Calvin Munson committed an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he hit Allen, who was sliding. Munson was in the game because Elandon Roberts injured his chest.
Igbinoghene also had a penalty on special teams.
Dolphins forced to reshuffle offensive line
For the first time this season, the Dolphins elected to start all three rookies along the offensive line.
Jackson was at left tackle. Solomon Kindley was at right guard. And Hunt was at right tackle.
But that plan lasted less than one quarter. That's because Flowers left with an ankle injury. That required benched Jesse Davis to enter the game at right guard, with Kindley shifted to left guard.
Miami is fortunate to have six starting-caliber linemen. It's possible the Dolphins may have to go without Flowers, who has been a solid free agent addition, for some time.
Tagovailoa was not sacked, and Miami's offensive line played fairly well.
Miami also lost linebacker Roberts in the first quarter. Safety Eric Rowe was evaluated for a concussion in the first quarter, but returned.
Out of town scoreboard
At the start of the day, the Dolphins were 7-4 and in the sixth of seven playoff positions in the AFC. They would have been locked into a game against Ryan Tannehill and the Tennessee Titans.
Here are some early Sunday results that are relevant to Miami:
Colts defeat Texans: The Indianapolis win could hurt Miami's playoff chances as they match Miami's 8-4. But remember, the Dolphins hold the Texans' first- and second-round picks in the next NFL draft. And Houston falls to 4-8. Miami could end up with a Top 10 pick.
Browns defeat Titans: This increases the Browns' chances to make the playoffs as a wild card, behind Pittsburgh in the AFC North. Cleveland is now 9-3. The Titans fall to 8-4, also matching Miami.
Raiders defeat the Jets: With a 46-yard touchdown pass with 13 seconds left, Las Vegas improves to 7-5, staying alive in the AFC Wild Card chase. Remember, Miami plays at the Raiders on Saturday, Dec. 26. The Jets stay on track for Trevor Lawrence.
The Bills, 8-3, and in first place in the AFC East, will play at the 49ers on Monday night.
It's possible, of course, that the division could be determined when Miami plays at Buffalo in the season finale on Jan. 3.