Tua throws game-winner to Hill as Dolphins open season with 36-34 win over Chargers

There are still several months until the story of the Dolphins’ 2023 season is told in full.

But in Week 1, returning to the site of a frustrating prime-time loss late last year, Miami looked like a team that was ready to put the nadirs of 2022 behind them in pursuit of lofty goals.

Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw a go-ahead 4-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Tyreek Hill with 1:49 remaining and the Dolphins’ defense, which was gashed on the ground, posted two of its three sacks on quarterback Justin Herbert to preserve a 36-34 win.

“We didn’t really spend little or any time talking about last year,” Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel said, “because it was really erroneous, I thought.”

In a back-and-forth affair to open the season, the Dolphins’ offense bounced back from one of its worst outings of the 2022 season against the Chargers on “Sunday Night Football.”

Tagovailoa, playing his first regular-season game in nine months after a second stint in the concussion protocol prematurely ended his 2022 season, completed 28 of 45 passes for 466 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

“I was just really excited to be out there again,” Tagovailoa said of his first game since Christmas Day. “I don’t think anything else relates to the adrenaline rush when you go out there. You’ve got the fans. Even when you’re warming up, you can smell the popcorn. There’s just a lot of things that you just can’t really emulate. And being able to go out there with the guys, it was awesome and I was just really appreciative of the opportunity.”

Tagovailoa was at his best late. Trailing 34-30 with 3:47 remaining and facing third-and-10 from the Dolphins’ 25-yard line, Tagovailoa stepped up in the pocket and delivered a high-arching pass to Hill for a 47-yard gain to the Chargers’ 28-yard line.

Five plays later, the duo connected again, as Tagovailoa dropped a fade pass into Hill’s hands for the 4-yard touchdown and game-winning score.

“It’s the easiest, most layup coaching point of all time: continue to do what you’re doing,” McDaniel said of Tagovailoa, who posted his second-most passing yards in a game.

“But honestly, that’s where he’s at, where he is tough-minded enough and accountable enough that he puts, probably, even more than he should on his own shoulders, has very high standards for himself and wants to continue to grow and get better. So, with that relentless approach and then that consistent understanding of who you have to be — if you want to be a big-time quarterback on a big-time team, which I know is the way he looks at it, then the cost is real. And I want him to keep paying that cost at whatever comes across his plate. He’s as coachable as any player that I’ve ever been around in my life. So, I want him to continue doing that.”

Kicker Jason Sanders missed the ensuing extra point, keeping the Dolphins lead at two and giving the Chargers an opportunity to win with a field goal.

The Dolphins’ defense stepped up with the game on the line, though. After a first-down completion to start the drive, Herbert was flagged for intentional grounding. Defensive lineman Zach Sieler then sacked Herbert and two plays later, outside linebacker Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Justin Bethel converged on Herbert on fourth down to end any comeback bid from Los Angeles.

“Say what you want, the game was won with the defense on the field,” McDaniel said. “And that will always be the story of how teams win or lose.”

After a 23-17 loss to the Chargers last December in which the Dolphins posted their second-fewest yardage of the season, there were questions about whether Los Angeles had produced an effective game plan to stymie Miami’s electric offense, particularly with tight press coverage and crowding the middle of the field.

McDaniel downplayed any schematic cues from that game and, with several months to fix the errors of that matchup, the Dolphins’ offense looked like a unit that could build off a record-setting season in 2022.

Hill, who caught four passes for 81 yards and a touchdown in last year’s game, recorded a game-high 11 catches for 215 yards and two touchdowns, including the deciding score. His 215 receiving yards are the most as a Dolphin.

“Everything was more fluid [on Sunday],” Hill said. “’Cause last year, I was just banking on my speed and banking on out-running guys. But this year, I was in my bag a little more on release moves and just routes at the top and stuff like that.”

And without standout left tackle Terron Armstead, who was sidelined by injuries, Miami’s offensive line didn’t give up a single sack.

While the offense headlined a late comeback victory, McDaniel pointed to a collective team effort full of resolve that powered the Dolphins to a thrilling, opening-season win.

The Dolphins fell behind 7-0 after an impressive opening-possession drive quickly ended because of a lost fumble on a bad quarterback-center exchange at the Chargers’ 2-yard line. But Miami answered each Chargers score and took a 20-17 halftime lead after a smart timeout by McDaniel got the Dolphins the ball back with nine seconds.

After Tagovailoa was intercepted by cornerback J.C. Jackson in the end zone in the third quarter, cornerback Kader Kohou got a drive-ending sack to keep the Dolphins’ deficit at four, 24-20. One play after a short punt, Tagovailoa found Hill for a 35-yard score to give the Dolphins a 27-24 lead.

The Dolphins’ defense struggled to get off the field against the Chargers and gave up 234 rushing yards. But before the late stand, a red zone stop — the unit’s only one in five trips for the Chargers’ offense — forced Los Angeles to make a short field goal. That kept the game within one possession, 34-30, as the ball was put in Tagovailoa’s hands for a game-winning drive.

The Dolphins will quickly turn their attention to a Week 2 “Sunday Night Football” matchup with the New England Patriots on the road. But Miami’s season-opening win was pivotal because it was about growth, from a quarterback attempting to move past an injury-riddled season in an offense that could be one of the league’s best to a team aiming for much more after the franchise’s first postseason appearance in six years.

And throughout several moments of a highly-anticipated early-season matchup, signs of that growth were evident.

“I was really pumped about that — weathering the storm, doing what you have to do on both sides of the ball,” McDaniel said. “And if we need points, go ahead and get the points. And if we need a stop, get a spot.”