5 Instant Takeaways: Miami Dolphins blasted at Buffalo Bills with playoffs on the line
All the Dolphins had to do was win at Buffalo on Sunday, and they would launch themselves into the NFL playoffs.
Instead, Miami was demolished by the Bills, 56-26, and missed out on the postseason despite finishing with 10 wins.
Buffalo rested three defensive starters and yanked starting quarterback Josh Allen at halftime to protect him, but it didn't matter.
The loss, coupled with the Ravens, Browns and Colts winning eliminated the Dolphins' playoff chances.
On the bright side, the Dolphins will have two top-20 picks in the 2021 NFL Draft, including the third overall choice, after the Titans beat the Texans. Miami has the right to Houston's pick thanks to last season's trade involving Kenny Stills and Laremy Tunsil.
Allen showed off a strong arm and the type of career development that leads the Bills (13-3) to believe they will contend in the AFC East for the next decade.
Tua Tagovailoa struggled enough that Miami (10-6) will spend the next offseason figuring out ways to better support him, so it can take the next step as a franchise. The Dolphins must close a decent-sized gap with AFC East champion Buffalo.
Despite the loss, a Dolphins jump from 5-11 to 10-6 was impressive for coach Brian Flores. With lots of draft picks and cap space, Miami is still a franchise on the rise.
But on Sunday, Tagovailoa threw three second-half interceptions, with backup Ryan Fitzpatrick away from the team and on the NFL's COVID-19 list.
Miami's defense, which entered the day ranked No. 1 in the league in scoring defense, would not end it there.
Jags-Colts finish:Miami needed Jacksonville to beat Indianapolis to make NFL playoffs
Here are five takeaways:
Tagovailoa must make a Josh Allen-type leap in Year 2
Tagovailoa was not good enough on third down on Sunday. He began the game 0-for-11, which is as bad as it gets.
Tagovailoa was also unable to drive the ball down the field, which has been a common problem throughout his rookie season.
Assuming the Dolphins plan to continue to build around the fifth pick in the last NFL draft, they will need him to make a Josh Allen-type leap in his second and third seasons.
Consider that Allen was erratic and inconsistent as a rookie. It would not be fair to say Tagovailoa has been erratic. He has not. For the most part, he's played it safe and protected the football.
Allen's passer ratings in his first three season climbed from 68 to 85 to 106.
Entering play, Tagovailoa's rating was 93, largely because of a solid completion percentage and touchdown-to-interception ratio. Nothing went well Sunday.
He should take a leap forward, though it will be interesting to see if and when Flores and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey announce if Gailey is returning.
Miami must implement more tempo, as Tagovailoa has flourished in those situations at the start of the second half all season.
The Dolphins must construct an offensive plan entirely around Tagovailoa's strengths, including a decision on how much run-pass option they'll utilize.
It's official:Dolphins own No. 3 and No. 18 picks in 2021 NFL draft
Defense struggles against Allen
Miami has one of the best group of cornerbacks in the NFL, if not the best.
That did not play out on Sunday.
Nik Needham was beaten by Isaiah McKenzie for touchdowns on 7 and 14 yards. And Byron Jones was beaten by John Brown for a 32-yard touchdown.
Jones did record his second interception in four games, which bodes well for him in 2021. He's been focused on creating more turnovers.
The two touchdowns allowed by Needham came on third down, which is unusual. The Dolphins entered play with the best third-down defense in the NFL.
In the second half, Needham was burned, again, this time for 56 yards by Gabriel Davis, on a pass from Matt Barkley.
Looking ahead to next season, it will be interesting to see if and how Miami integrates its 2020 first-round cornerback, Noah Igbinoghene, into more action. Perhaps he can compete for a starting slot spot.
Dolphins need offensive line, running back improvements
The Dolphins started rookies Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt and Solomon Kindley for a good portion of their rookie seasons.
All three players flashed potential. But it's not as if any of those players has already made a statement that they will be appearing in multiple future Pro Bowls.
Miami has wanted to build its offense from the trenches out. But the Dolphins will have to consider adding at least one high draft choice or free agent to the line.
Why? Because it cannot be said that the long-term solutions are locked in place.
Of course, Miami must also utilize a relatively high draft choice on a running back, or sign one that's not over-the-hill in free agency.
A more effective and consistent running attack will be required to help Tua reach his potential.
Miami's special teams disappointment
For most of the season, Miami has had one of the best special teams units in the NFL.
On Sunday, there was a let-down.
McKenzie had an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter to put the Bills up 21-3.
One core special teamer who was missing from the Dolphins' special teams units on Sunday was linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill, at home ill, though not with COVID-19.
The Dolphins also could have used a few punt return chances by Jakeem Grant, who missed the game due to a high ankle sprain.
Top offseason priority must be play-maker for Tua
DeVante Parker was unable to play in the previous two games, due to a hamstring injury. On Sunday, Parker slipped and fell on a key pick-six touchdown by the Bills' Josh Norman in the third quarter.
Preston Williams has missed large parts of his first two seasons due to injuries to his knee and foot. And dynamic at times, he's also had drops.
Miami needs to draft a first-round receiver who is fast, explosive and dynamic and sure-handed. In general, Miami had had too many drops and tipped passes that result in interceptions or near-interceptions.
It doesn't matter if Miami's next top receiver played for Alabama, LSU, Purdue or Coastal Carolina. Tagovailoa must be provided a receiver who can both create separation and make a huge gainer on yards-after catch.
Tagovailoa needs help. It must be the top priority for general manager Chris Grier.