For three quarters on Sunday, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and the Miami Dolphins did enough.
Then, in the fourth quarter, they — and particularly their ball security — thoroughly imploded.
The same quarterback who entered December with 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions in nine games matched that turnover total in a single quarter.
Mistakes, head coach Mike McDaniel said after the 26-20 loss to the Green Bay Packers, compounded. And until Tagovailoa and the Dolphins sufficiently address them, they threaten to continue to derail a promising season.
“It’s a challenge, but it’s also something every quarterback really goes through,” McDaniel said. “You have to really figure out how you don’t let mistakes snowball. … You can’t let the past influence the present.
“I think there could be some portions of that that have to do with him kind of snowballing in his own mind.”
McDaniel insisted his quarterback is strong and the coach is “confident” he’ll move past this. But a four-game Dolphins skid continues to wreck their postseason viability and even, after Sunday’s loss, their postseason contention.
The Dolphins entered Sunday with an 83% chance to make the playoffs, per FiveThirtyEight’s playoff predictor. They exited with a 67% chance.
And while McDaniel emphasized Tagovailoa alone wasn’t at fault for blowing this game, the quarterback’s decision-making undoubtedly contributed. He knew that.
“You get an opportunity to play on Christmas Day against a really good team,” Tagovailoa said, “and I go out there, not able to put my best foot forward.”
‘Communication errors’ and a ‘wrong route’
Dolphins fans might refuse to look back this far, but it was actually Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers who threw the first interception in the close Christmas Day game.
Facing third-and-15 less than a minute into the fourth quarter, Rodgers looked for receiver Allen Lazard in the end zone. Dolphins rookie cornerback Kader Kohou instead recorded his first career pick, setting up the Dolphins to pull away from a 20-20 tie.
On the first snap, Tagovailoa targeted receiver Tyreek Hill, putting air on the ball in hopes of throwing over a defender. He miscalculated the air in his throw, the pass sailing over the heads of the defender and Hill. Packers cornerback Jaire Alexander watched the play unfold, thinking to himself: “Wow, is he really overthrowing it?”
“Oh, man,” Alexander said in his postgame interview with Fox sideline reporter Pam Oliver. “That’s easy.”
Tagovailoa said the throw “got away” from him.
Three minutes and 15 seconds later, the Packers connected on a field goal to go up 23-20 after three quarters without a lead.
On the ensuing drive, the Dolphins appeared to settle. With his team alternating between the run and pass, Tagovailoa successfully found three different receivers for a double-digit gain each on the drive. Remnants of the rhythmic explosive game that had dominated the first half — Tagovailoa had actually completed 9-of-12 passes for 229 yards and a touchdown before halftime — seemed to trickle in.
Until a miscommunication.
Facing second-and-13 from the Packers’ 30, Tagovailoa fired almost as soon as he fielded the snap. This time, Packers linebacker De’Vondre Campbell nabbed the catch, no Dolphins player even within reach. Tagovailoa took the blame for what he called “some communications errors” on the play, the quarterback shrugging that he “might have said the wrong play, I’m not too sure.” McDaniel, however, defended his quarterback on that play.
“There was one of his interceptions that the primary receiver kind of busted,” McDaniel said. “Ran the wrong route. A concept we ran numerous times this week. So it’s not just him.
“That is a team failure, not a one-person failure.”
The Packers again settled for a field goal as they bled the clock. Tagovailoa and teammates retook the field with 1:56 to play and a chance: They trailed by just 6 points.
Two plays later, that wouldn’t matter. Packers cornerback Rasul Douglas thought of the mantra that turnovers come in bunches. “You get one pick,” he reasoned, and “more gonna come.” Tagovailoa dropped back and fired a cross-body towards the right sideline. Douglas jumped the route intended for tight end Mike Gesicki and effectively sealed Green Bay’s win.
“Just not a good ball for my receivers to have been able to make a play on that,” Tagovailoa said, wearily rubbing his neck. “It’s tough.”
Is Tagovailoa at risk for a repeat?
McDaniel argued against blaming the Dolphins’ entire four-game streak on Tagovailoa’s ball security. Tagovailoa surrendered three costly second-half turnovers in a 33-17 Dec. 4 losses to the San Francisco 49ers. But he didn’t throw an interception in subsequent losses to the Los Angeles Chargers or Buffalo Bills, his one fumble on a strip sack recovered by a teammate.
“So to go from zero turnovers to four is going to impact the game in a serious way,” McDaniel said. “If you don’t do right by alignments, you don’t do right by protecting the football, these are the things that will happen. Our young team is having to learn the very, very hard way.”
And Tagovailoa, after Sunday’s dramatic ending, must incorporate lessons quickly for the Dolphins to maintain their grasp on this season. The high-level execution that his first-half play vs. the Packers featured needs to extend longer. His communication with teammates must be crisper, his throws more judicious. Coming opponents will be sure to exploit tendencies shown in three interceptions, on three straight drives, to three different defenders.
The Packers already seemed to capitalize.
“We knew he was a guy who’s going to anticipate, and he’s going to let the ball go,” Packers head coach Matt LaFleur said. “But if you can read the quarterback the right way, that also gives you some opportunities defensively. And our guys did a great job of that.”
With two AFC East games rounding out the Dolphins’ regular-season slate, the road will not get easier. The Dolphins face the New England Patriots then the New York Jets, teams who entered this week ranked eighth and fourth in total defense, respectively. The Patriots’ 16 interceptions also tied for second-most in the league.
All three teams are vying for AFC wild-card spots, and the Dolphins’ 8-7 record is just one game better than their counterparts.
Miami’s first-year head coach implored his team after the game to ensure “these situations manifest … improvement.”
“At some point if we want to take the next step, we’re going to have to put up or shut up,” McDaniel said. “Nothing comes easy in this game. The one thing I do know is if you’re able to dig yourself out of it, it does benefit you in the next phase of the season. That’s where you don’t want to have wilting or snowballing play or anything but clean football.”
Tagovailoa knows he must regroup and rebound. McDaniel believes his teammates and coach must raise their game, too.
“What type of people are we and are we able to really get through this together?” he said. “There’s no one else outside the team meeting room that is going to come save us.
“We have to figure it out ourselves.”
Follow Yahoo Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein