The Miami Dolphins were gifted with a post-Christmas dose of FitzMagic.
Veteran quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick replaced Tua Tagovailoa in the fourth quarter Saturday and led his team to a remarkable game-winning drive in a 26-25 victory over the Las Vegas Raiders, significantly boosting Miami's chances of making the playoffs.
The play of the game came with the Dolphins down 25-23 and just 19 seconds left. Fitzpatrick dropped back and heaved a Hail Mary down the left sideline, where he found an open receiver in Mack Hollins for a 34-yard completion. It was redemption for Hollins, who dropped a potential touchdown just a few minutes earlier.
"For lack of a better term," Hollins said, "I live for that s---."
"In that case, really, you're throwing up a prayer," Fitzpatrick said. "I didn't know that it was complete, initially. My face mask was getting pulled, and my head was getting ripped off. I turned around to make sure they saw the face mask, then [Dolphins right tackle] Jesse Davis or [running back] Myles Gaskin had to tell me it was completed."
Raiders defensive lineman Arden Key was the one yanking Fitzpatrick's face mask, adding a crucial 15-yard penalty to the play. The extra yardage set the Dolphins up for a 44-yard winning field goal by Jason Sanders.
It was a wild final five minutes that consisted of Fitzpatrick's go-ahead, 59-yard touchdown pass to Gaskin; a Raiders go-ahead field goal with 19 seconds left, aided by a questionable pass interference call; and ultimately Fitzpatrick's late heave.
Fitzpatrick said that during the fourth quarter, it was the first time in his 16-year NFL career he had to use the locker room bathroom. When he returned, Dolphins coach Brian Flores told Fitzpatrick he would be going into the game. After a handful of roller-coaster series for both teams, Fitzpatrick made what he called the best play of his career with the throw to Hollins.
Also tucked in there was a unique decision by the Raiders to have Josh Jacobs slide at the 1-yard line, setting up a field goal rather than the running back crossing the goal line for a touchdown.
The 10-5 Dolphins now have a 62% chance to make the playoffs, according to ESPN's Football Power Index, and their path is simple: win next weekend at the Buffalo Bills and they are postseason-bound for the first time since 2016.
This is the second time this season Tagovailoa has been benched in the fourth quarter of a tight game in search of an offensive boost. The other was during a Week 11 loss at the Denver Broncos. Fitzpatrick fell just short of a comeback in that contest but pulled off the incredible trick Saturday.
Despite the late theatrics in Las Vegas, Flores said Tagovailoa will be the starter next weekend against the Bills. Flores explained he went to Fitzpatrick on Saturday because the team needed a "spark to win the game" but that the rookie will still be No. 1 on the depth chart.
"If we got to go to a relief pitcher in the ninth [inning], that's what we'll do," Flores said. "Fitz, he's always ready to go. ... I have a lot of confidence in Tua. He's made a lot of plays for us. He's made plays today. We just felt like we needed a spark. Fitzy gave us that.
"Tua is a young player. He's developing. He's improving on a daily basis. He's learning from these experiences. He'll be better next week."
Fitzpatrick threw for 182 yards in the fourth quarter, tied for his most yards in a final frame (2013 Week 15 vs. Arizona Cardinals).
He completed more passes thrown more than 5 yards downfield than Tagovailoa, who struggled mightily on those same throws. Fitzpatrick went 5-of-6 for 154 yards and a touchdown, while Tagovailoa was 3-of-7 for 35 yards.
Tagovailoa, 22, said after the victory that it was a learning experience and that he knows he needs to take more chances down the field, particularly when the game is on the line. It's a continual balance for Tagovailoa in taking what the defense gives him and making the splash plays like Fitzpatrick did.
"It wasn't really that shocking in a way what happened. They call him FitzMagic for a reason," Tagovailoa said. "This is the second time [getting benched has] happened. It's just something you got to learn from. When Fitz is in there, I'm going to support him."
Flores has continually counted on Fitzpatrick, 38, as a seasoned closer when needed in a sticky situation, seemingly with little concern about what him arriving in the lineup does to Tagovailoa's mindset. Both quarterbacks have said they will do whatever the staff believes gives Miami the best chance to win. The team supports them both, and there doesn't appear to be any controversy about who the quarterback will be, though players often note the magical feeling when Fitzpatrick enters the lineup.
"Different energy. Everybody knows Fitz; it's a different type of a guy. It's a changeup," Gaskin said. "Probably the most fun game I've ever played in my life."
Ultimately, the moves Flores has made have paid off, and they might have saved the Dolphins' playoff chances. The questions will come about Tagovailoa in the long term and Fitzpatrick in the short term, but Flores remains focused on what he believes is best for the team now with his choices.
"There's a lot of people in that locker room who are trying to win. That's at the forefront of the decisions I'm going to make here today and moving forward as long as I'm here," Flores said. "Tua is a resilient kid. He's a tough-minded kid. He's happy that Fitzy went in there and we won the game because he's a selfless, team-first guy; that's why he's here."