Painful loss to Chiefs leaves Dolphins in dicey spot

The Miami Dolphins are one of those teams you want to see succeed. You watch them battling the Kansas City Chiefs -- forging ahead with a beleaguered roster and a promising rookie quarterback -- and there are moments when Miami's upside feels so exciting. Then you remember what often comes with inexperience and injuries in the NFL. Those factors make it harder for young teams to realize all their big dreams.

The Dolphins came into Sunday's game with a chance to make a huge leap in pursuit of a postseason spot. Miami left the contest clinging to the final playoff seed in the AFC, with a clear understanding of how difficult its road is about to become. The Dolphins' 33-27 loss to Kansas City didn't merely drop them to 8-5 on the season -- it left them in a precarious position for the near future, with three more games looming against teams contending for playoff spots.

This explains the Dolphins' disinterest in celebrating the fight they gave the defending Super Bowl champions in the second half of Sunday's tilt.

"It hurts a lot to come up short," Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa said. "What we want to do is win the ballgame. We want to score one more point than the opposing team, which we obviously didn't. I think the defense gave us many opportunities -- not just in the third quarter, but some in the fourth quarter, as well -- but offensively, we didn't execute as we should've. And a lot of that falls down on me."

That about sums up this game, as well as Miami's predicament at the moment. The Dolphins have plenty of defense. They entered this contest ranked second in the league in points allowed and they forced Kansas City into a season-high four turnovers (despite missing linebackers Kyle Van Noy and Elandon Roberts). Three of those takeaways were interceptions of Chiefs star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who'd thrown only two picks in Weeks 1-13.

The problem is the Dolphins have too many issues in other areas. Injuries were a significant hindrance for Miami in this contest, as it lost both wide receiver DeVante Parker and tight end Mike Gesicki during the action. Neither player returned after getting hurt, leaving Tagovailoa without his top two targets. The Dolphins were plagued by health problems at running back before the game even began, as Miami's top three rushers didn't play against Kansas City.

Those circumstances played a huge role in Miami falling behind 30-10 midway through the third quarter. It says something that Tagovailoa rallied this team and pulled it to within a six-point deficit in the final minutes. Yes, the Dolphins can tell themselves that they didn't quit. They also are willing to accept that such talk doesn't really matter at this time of year.

This was a game when the Dolphins could have put to rest any doubt about their viability as a playoff contender. Instead, their odds of getting in took a big hit.

"The biggest thing is there are no moral victories," Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said. "We can always learn and improve. We did some good stuff. We did some not-so-good stuff. This ultimately is a good game to learn from. We know we're capable of more. We didn't get the result we wanted because in the end, we wanted a win."

The important thing to remember about this game is that the Chiefs really dominated for long stretches. The Dolphins jumped out to an early 10-0 lead thanks to two Mahomes interceptions. Kansas City then responded by scoring 30 straight points. That's how the Chiefs roll, as head coach Andy Reid loves to say. They rip your heart out just when you start feeling good about yourself.

The Dolphins gave up a 67-yard punt return for a touchdown to Mecole Hardman. Kansas City's Chris Jones sacked Tagovailoa in the end zone for a safety. Miami's offense couldn't move the football for long periods of the game and Tagovailoa had moments when he was thoroughly frustrated. This is what young teams can ill-afford to do in such situations -- they can't keep deepening the holes they dig for themselves.

The upside here is obvious. The Dolphins know how to fight. That fierce attitude comes directly from head coach Brian Flores and it shows up in everything they do. Even when the Chiefs were running away with this game, Miami competed as if it was determined to get in some licks.

This is why Tagovailoa, who posted 316 passing yards and accounted for three TDs (both career highs) with one INT, was able to lead two touchdown drives late in the game, relying largely on backups at the skill positions. It's why Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones forced a fumble by Hardman when the Chiefs were driving for another third-quarter touchdown, and Miami's other starting cornerback, Xavien Howard, made a beautiful one-handed interception while covering Tyreek Hill in the end zone in the fourth quarter. The Dolphins created plenty of chances for themselves. They just aren't at the point where they can turn all those opportunities into advantages.

As well as the Miami defense played against Mahomes, he still finished 24-of-34 passing for 393 yards and two touchdowns.

"They're a good offense, no question," Byron Jones said. "They've got good players. Coming into this game, we wanted to make them earn it. We just gave up too many easy plays. Some really dumb stuff here and there and that really cost us. That's something we saw on film and something we wanted to eliminate."

The Dolphins now have three more games to make their case for the postseason. They'll see the Patriots, Raiders and Bills over that stretch, which means nothing is going to come easy. New England has struggled mightily this year, but Flores knows his old boss, Bill Belichick, remains crafty. The Raiders have an offense blessed with several explosive weapons, while Buffalo is one of the top five teams in the league.

The Dolphins can't survive that stretch if they can't get healthy fast. They can't thrive if Tagovailoa only plays his best when the team needs to rally. As Flores said of his quarterback's day, "I thought he made a lot of plays for us, especially in the fourth quarter. He put us in position to score some points. But at the end of the day, none of us are satisfied."

That is exactly the perspective the Dolphins need after this defeat. They showed some good things and gave the reigning champions a little scare at the end. A young team can build on that kind of stuff. A young team that battles the type of misfortune the Dolphins are currently dealing with can use it as a legitimate building block.

That will all mean more in the offseason, when Flores starts laying the groundwork for next season's squad. Right now, there are playoff spots on the line and plenty of teams looking to snare them. The Dolphins had a great opportunity on Sunday to improve their hopes of joining the lucky few. They missed it because there's still plenty more work for them to do.

Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter.

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