Dolphins’ 5-game winning streak ends with loss to 49ers in McDaniel’s return to San Francisco

For over a month, the Dolphins were a team growing more confident as it stacked wins together and cemented itself as one of the AFC’s best teams.

But after a 33-17 loss to the San Francisco 49ers at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California, on Sunday, Miami was left to figure out how to not let a sobering, late-season defeat derail its postseason hopes.

The loss, which snapped the Dolphins’ five-game winning streak, was Miami’s first loss since quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s return from a concussion in Week 7. In failing to defeat a San Francisco team playing much of the game without starting quarterback Jimmy Garropolo, who sustained a season-ending broken foot on the first drive, the Dolphins (8-4) dropped one game behind the Buffalo Bills (9-3) for first place in the AFC East. Miami fell down to the sixth seed in the AFC, with a “Sunday Night Football” matchup against the Los Angeles Chargers (6-6) up next.

“It sucks that we didn’t come out and say what we wanted to do, collectively, as a team,” said quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who threw for 295 yards and two touchdowns but also tossed a pair of third-quarter interceptions, his first since Week 4.

Trailing 23-17 with 6:03 remaining, Tagovailoa’s fourth-down pass to tight end Mike Gesicki, initially ruled a completion that moved the chains, was overturned after a challenge by San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan. The call gave the 49ers (8-4) the ball at their 36-yard line with six minutes remaining and they burned three minutes on a drive that ended with a 48-yard field goal by kicker Robbie Gould, putting the Dolphins behind by two scores with 2:08 remaining.

On the next play, defensive end Nick Bosa stripped-sack Tagovailoa, and inside linebacker Dre Greenlaw returned it 23 yards for a touchdown, ending any comeback effort. Against an offensive line missing left tackle Terron Armstead (pectoral) and right tackle Austin Jackson (ankle), Bosa sacked Tagovailoa three times. Tagovailoa was later taken out of the game because of an ankle injury and replaced by rookie Sylar Thompson, who throw an interception on his only pass attempt.

Tagovailoa said postgame that he was “as good as I can be coming off a game.” Tagovailoa, who was listed on the injury report with an ankle injury throughout the week but participated fully in each practice, left the podium without a noticeable limp or any wrapping around either ankle.

After a career-long 75-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Trent Sherfield, a former 49er, on the first play of the game gave the Dolphins an early 7-0 lead, Tagovailoa and Miami’s offense struggled for much of the afternoon. The Dolphins trailed 17-10 at halftime and mustered just 82 total yards in the first half after the opening-play score. Miami finished with 308 yards but was 0-for-7 on third downs.

“Guys were a little off, just in general, collectively,” said Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who made his return to San Francisco after five seasons on Shanahan’s staff with the 49ers.

Tagovailoa completed 18 of 33 passes and his first interception, a pick by safety Jimmie Ward as he targeted running back Jeff Wilson Jr, ended a franchise-record 193 straight passes without throwing an interception.

One play after a 49ers field goal put the Dolphins behind 20-10, Tagovailoa was intercepted again, this time by cornerback Deommodore Lenoir, on a short pass that was behind wide receiver Tyreek Hill (nine catches, 146 yards).

“We had a lot of opportunities offensively. [We] didn’t capitalize and so, that’s the result of the game,” said Tagovailoa, who said his picks came from “poor ball placement.”

The Dolphins trailed 23-10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter but Tagovailoa found Hill for a 45-yard touchdown pass, cutting the Dolphins’ deficit to six with 14 minutes remaining.

After the Dolphins’ defense forced a punt with 11 minutes remaining, a third-down completion to Sherfield was overturned by Shanahan’s first challenge on the drive, setting up fourth-and-1 from their own 19-yard line with 10 minutes left. McDaniel kept his offense on the field and Tagovailoa converted the play with a short completion to Hill. But Shanahan’s second challenge of the drive took the ball away from the Dolphins on the potential go-ahead drive.

A 30-yard run by running back Christian McCaffrey (146 total yards) put the 49ers in field-goal range with three minutes remaining.

On a third-down play on the 49ers’ opening drive, Garropolo was sacked by linebackers Jaelan Phillips and Jerome Baker and later carted to San Francisco’s locker room. But rookie Brock Purdy, the final pick of the 2022 NFL Draft, steadied San Francisco off the bench, completing 25 of 37 passes for 210 yards, two first-half touchdowns and one interception.

McDaniel said that regardless of the final result, he wanted his young team to soak in a “playoff-type atmosphere” and improve on execution “with everything on the line.” With a prime-time game next on the schedule and additional matchups remaining against teams with playoff aspirations, it won’t be long until the Dolphins are back in the spotlight.

“This is nothing for us to worry about,” Tagovailoa said, “but it is an opportunity for us to get better from. So, don’t think that we’re taking this lightly and we’re just going to move on from it. [It is] a great opportunity for us that we’ll use and take coming into the LA game next week.”