There were 105 seconds remaining on the clock after quarterback Tua Tagovailoa gave the Dolphins a 36-34 lead with his third touchdown pass and 466th passing yard of the day. The Miami defense needed to come up with a stop. And when it mattered most, they got it done.
First came pressure up the middle from veteran cornerback Justin Bethel, which forced an intentional grounding penalty on Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert. Defensive tackle Zach Sieler then sacked Herbert for an eight-yard loss. On fourth-and-12, linebacker and Southern California native Jaelan Phillips combined with Bethel to take down Herbert once again and seal the Week 1 victory for Miami Sunday afternoon at SoFi Stadium.
“It was a situation where we needed to go down and we needed to score in order to give our team an opportunity to be in the lead,” Tagovailoa said of his game-winning touchdown drive. “I think our guys did a phenomenal job of not losing their composure in the heat of the moment, especially with the plays that happened prior to us getting that thing going, like that shot down the sideline to [Dolphins WR] Tyreek [Hill]. I’m just very proud of our guys.”
Tagovailoa’s 466 passing yards was the second-best mark of his career and fourth-best in a season-opening game in NFL history. Two of his three touchdowns went to wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who finished with 215 receiving yards, the third-most ever in a season-opener.
The Dolphins offense got off to a flying start as Tagovailoa found Hill for a 16-yard gain on his first pass attempt of the game. Tagovailoa then found wide receiver Jaylen Waddle for a 35-yard gain to put Miami in the red zone. But three plays later, what was a promising opening drive came to a halt after a fumbled quarterback-center exchange was recovered by Chargers defensive lineman Nick Williams.
The Chargers took over at their own six-yard line and drove down the field in 14 plays as running back Austin Ekeler found the end zone from one yard out to give Los Angeles a 7-0 lead with 4:39 to play.
The Dolphins, however, bounced right back. Tagovailoa found wide receiver River Cracraft for 24 yards to get the drive started. Then on third-and-eight from the Chargers’ 39-yard line, Tagovailoa rolled to his left and found wide receiver Braxton Berrios through a tight window to move the chains. Running back Raheem Mostert then powered his way to the two-yard line before finishing the drive with a two-yard touchdown run to tie the game, 7-7.
On Miami’s first possession of the second quarter, back-to-back completions of 29 and 28 yards from Tagovailoa to Hill set the offense up in Chargers territory. The drive stopped short of the end zone, however, and the Dolphins were forced to settle for a 23-yard field goal and a 10-7 lead.
That lead didn’t last long, though, as a 55-yard run from Ekeler moved the ball to the Dolphins’ nine-yard line and set up a one-yard touchdown pass from Chargers quarterback Justin Herbert to tight end Donald Parham Jr, giving the home side a 14-10 lead with 9:07 left to play.
Later in the second quarter, the Dolphins offense continued to churn out big plays. This time, the recipient was tight end Durham Smythe who caught 18- and 16-yard passes and picked up a 10-yard gain on fourth-and-seven all on the same drive. Five plays later, Tagovailoa found wide receiver River Cracraft in the back of the endzone for a one-yard touchdown to put Miami back in front, 17-14.
The two teams traded field goals to end the half as Jason Sanders’ 41-yard kick gave the Dolphins a 20-17 lead as time expired.
The Chargers began the second half with an 11-play, 75-yard drive to take a 24-20 lead and then forced a second Dolphins turnover on a deep pass intended for Berrios.
But the Dolphins defense stepped up, specifically second-year cornerback Kader Kohou. Kohou wrapped up wide receiver Mike Williams on a screen pass that yielded just one yard. He then stopped wide receiver Keenan Allen a yard short of the first down marker to set up third-and-one. Kohou ended the drive flying off the edge on a blitz, sacking Herbert at the one-yard line and giving the Dolphins offense great starting field position after the ensuing punt.
On the very next play, Tagovailoa found Hill in stride for a 35-yard touchdown pass to take a 27-24 lead with 2:18 to play in the third quarter.
The back-and-forth scoring continued as Chargers running back Joshua Kelley ran for a two-yard score to put Los Angeles up four, 31-27, with just over 14 minutes left.
The two teams traded field goals and Tagovailoa eventually found himself down 34-30 with the ball and a chance to take the lead for good. Facing third-and-10 from the Miami 25-yard line, he stepped up in the pocket, escaped the pressure and launched a deep pass down the sideline to a streaking Hill for 47 yards.
Later in the drive, Tagovailoa faced another third down and found Hill again on a perfect throw to the corner of the endzone, this time for a four-yard touchdown.
Miami’s defense did the rest and the Dolphins escaped with a thrilling 36-34 victory.
Herbert ended the afternoon with 228 passing yards while the Chargers totaled 234 yards on the ground.
Miami is back on the road next Sunday, September 17 to take on the New England Patriots on Sunday Night Football. Kickoff at Gillette Stadium is set for 8:20 p.m. ET on NBC.
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