Reality-check thud for Dolphins, Tua in 33-17 loss in San Fran — but don’t quit on Miami | Opinion

Al Diaz/adiaz@miamiherald.com

That first play, right? Tua Tagovailoa drops back, hits a strike to receiver Trent Sherfield for a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown and it’s the fastest 7-0 lead of this Miami Dolphins season.

The crowd in San Francisco sat stunned.

If that 8-3 record of Miami’s going in was not quite enough to get America’s attention and respect, maybe this did it?

Except the dream start didn’t last.

Neither did the five-game winning streak.

But has the faith in these Dolphins and this season survived Sunday’s 33-17 loss?

It should. But let’s find out.

Because this is pretty new territory, right? At least for the past 20 years or so. We are not used to Miami playing games this big, this late.

“There is nothing better in professional football than meaningful December and January games,” Fins coach Mike McDaniel had said. “To be on a competitive playoff run.”

Being on one of those is great.

Staying on one is the hard part.

The San Francisco 49ers did what they do Sunday, which is be the best defense in the NFL. Because of that the Dolphins and Tua Tagovailoa went back-to-earth-thud in seeing their a five-game winning streak end.

It was a rather ugly homecoming for McDaniel, a Niners assistant the past five seasons. Been a season for those, after Mario Cristobal’s 5-7 debut back with the Miami Hurricanes.

“We were a little off, collectively,” said McDaniel.

But it changed nothing, of course.

The Dolphins at 8-4 are still good, playoff-good. Tagovailoa is still having a breakthrough season. Miami and Tua should have earned enough faith in five wins in a row to withstand this loss.

You know some dread has begun to seep in among Dolfans, though. These meaningful December games bring their own kind of anxiety.

Another trip out west to face the Los Angeles Chargers follows, then a trip to Buffalo, a home game vs. Green Bay, a trip to New England and a home finale vs. the New York Jets.

Miami will earn he right to compete in the playoffs — or fall short because that right was not deserved.

Simple. Brutal.

What we saw Sunday in San Francisco was not surprising.

Tagovailoa was due a mortal game after a five-game air raid as impressive as most any we have seen in club history, the heyday of Dan Marino included.

And this was the game for it, with the Niners’ great defense, and with Miami missing both starting offensive tackles to injuries. Sure, enough, Tagovailoa had it rough. Nick Bosa made it so.

Tagovailoa was barely over 50 percent accuracy for the day, the ball floating for overthrows. His team-record streak of passes without an interception ended as he threw a pair of picks. His late fumble on a sack was returned for SF’s final score.

“It starts with me offensively,” said Tagovailoa of the loss. “It’s hard to win a game when you’re not on your P’s and Q’s and not dailed in.”

That first-play strike to Sherfield and a later 45-yard scoring play to Tyreek Hill were pretty much the highlight reel on a day that didn’t broadcast an indictment of the Dolphins as much as it just verified there are still teams that are better, including the Niners. Quarterback Joey Garoppolo was knocked out early with a broken foot that will end his season injury — and still the 49ers went on to dominate.

San Francisco had second-half shutouts in the previous four straight games, the NFL’s longest such streak since 1939. Miami ended that run, at least, with the TD pass to Hill.

Skylar Thompson mopped up when Tagovailoa was knocked out by an ankle injury and promptly threw an interception. That kind of day. Hasn’t been one like this in a while for this team. Tua did not believe, postgame, that his ankle injury is anything serious.

The beauty and brutality of the NFL is that you must keeping proving, every week, how good you are.

Sunday might have proved the Fins are not quite as good as we thought. Might have.

But next week, and then a trip to Buffalo, put that narrative back in Miami’s control.