MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — So, how do the Miami Dolphins win a game without their four leading receivers?
By finding some semblance of a run game that has not existed during the first two seasons of the Brian Flores era until Sunday.
Dolphins rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa scored two rushing touchdowns, rookie running back Salvon Ahmed scored one of his own with 114 of Miami’s 250 rushing yards on the day, and Miami beat the New England Patriots 22-12 at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
Dolphins running back Matt Breida added 86 yards, while cornerback Xavien Howard forced a fumble to extend Miami’s streak of forcing a turnover to 20 games as the victory keeps Miami’s playoff hopes alive.
The Dolphins’ playoff chances increase to roughly 40-45%, according to analytics site FiveThirtyEight, with Miami (9-5) needing wins against the Las Vegas Raiders this Saturday night and AFC East champion Buffalo Bills on Jan. 3 to reach the postseason.
Before looking ahead, one day after the Bills won their first division title since 1995, the Dolphins contributed another blow to New England’s lengthy dynasty.
The Dolphins helped end the Patriots’ stretch of 16 of 17 playoff appearances, including 11 consecutive playoff berths, one season after Miami’s season-ending win at New England got the ball rolling on an early playoff exit and Tom Brady’s departure.
Tagovailoa completed 20-of-26 passes for 145 yards with no touchdowns and an interception, playing without leading receiver DeVante Parker (hamstring), tight end Mike Gesicki (shoulder), receiver and returner Jakeem Grant (hamstring).
All three were inactive for Sunday’s game, while the Dolphins continue to trek without second-year receiver Preston Williams, who remains out with a foot injury.
As a result, Dolphins rookie Lynn Bowden Jr. led with six catches for 37 yards, while tight end Durham Smythe had 40 yards receiving on five receptions.
And the Dolphins relied on their run game, which saw Ahmed return from a three-game absence due to a shoulder injury to become the first Miami running back to rush for more than 100 yards in two seasons.
His 1-yard touchdown in the third quarter gave the Dolphins their first score of the game, and his 31-yard run at the end of the quarter set up Tagovailoa’s first rushing touchdown, which came on a 3-yard run early in the fourth quarter.
Ahmed nearly had a second touchdown, but was ruled short at the goal line, setting up Tagovailoa’s second touchdown with 3:17 left, which solidified Miami’s win.
But the Dolphins win did not come easy.
Miami struggled early thanks to three plays that did not go its way in the first half.
Tagovailoa and the Dolphins offense found a rhythm on their second drive of the game, which lasted 15 plays and 95 yards, starting at their own 2-yard line.
But Tagovailoa threw his second career interception after finding Bowden too late while getting hit, leading to Patriots defensive back J.C. Jackson’s interception for Miami’s first turnover of the game. The Patriots (6-8) turned the turnover into kicker Nick Folk’s 45-yard field goal to take a 3-0 lead.
The Dolphins nearly answered with a turnover of their own as Patriots quarterback Cam Newton was chased down by rookie safety Brandon Jones, who caused Newton to fumble.
Howard scooped the football and returned it 86 yards for a touchdown that could have boosted his candidacy for NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
Instead, the football first touched Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, while he was out of bounds, before Howard scooped it up. New England regained possession and Folk kicked a 36-yard field goal to give New England a 6-0 lead with 4:15 left in the first half.
The Dolphins’ last drive before halftime saw Tagovailoa take a sack, setting up a fourth-and-8. Tagovailoa found running back Patrick Laird for a 9-yard gain to get back into field goal range.
But Dolphins kicker Jason Sanders missed a 52-yard field goal as time expired, marking his second missed kick in as many weeks, and his third miss all season.
The Dolphins started the second half on a much better note. They used a nine-play drive, featuring eight run plays, ending in running back Ahmed’s 1-yard touchdown run.
On the ensuing drive, Howard got the turnover he was looking for in the first half, stripping Patriots receiver Jakobi Meyers for a fumble, recovered by Dolphins linebacker Elandon Roberts.
The Dolphins never looked back after finding their groove in the second half.
And they’re two wins away from securing a playoff spot in Flores’ second season.
Still, there’s plenty of work and injuries to overcome before the Dolphins can celebrate any achievements just yet.