Dolphins vs. Bills: Miami’s One (And Only) Path To Victory on Wild Card Weekend

If Dolphins vs. Bills is a shootout, Miami has no shot. But if Miami's talented defense can play its best game, there's a path to victory.

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The words had barely escaped Mike McDaniel’s mouth revealing the Miami Dolphins‘ decision to rule Tua Tagovailoa out for Sunday’s Dolphins vs. Bills Wild Card playoff game when Vegas scrambled to react.

The betting line, which had been a robust Buffalo Bills -9 even without clarity on Miami’s quarterback situation, swung to a record-threatening Bills -13 after McDaniel’s announcement. That spread — which would be the biggest in Wild Card history — has since held up, and presumably will through kickoff.

The Bills are a staggering -800 to advance to the Divisional Round, which is as close to a bye as any 2 seed will get in the current playoff format. So why even play the game, if the result is a foregone conclusion? Because 1. That’s against the rules; and 2. The Dolphins have earned the right to shock the world.

Can they? Yes, but it would take drawing to an inside straight.

Miami Dolphins Only Chance vs. Buffalo Bills

Any Dolphins win would take the best game of emergency QB Skylar Thompson’s young career. The rookie seventh-rounder freely admitted Wednesday that the nine points generated by the offense in Miami’s Week 18 win over the Jets will not be enough.

But reasonable expectations are key here. If the Dolphins can get to 20, it’ll be a small miracle, particularly with injuries up and down their offensive line and Raheem Mostert almost certainly out with a broken thumb.

In other words, the Dolphins cannot win a shootout. And it’ll be up to their high-priced but, at times, underwhelming defense to make sure it happens.

Way back in September, on the eve of the Dolphins’ season opener and McDaniel’s debut as a head coach, he told his players that “this is still the defense’s team until proven otherwise.” Otherwise was proven repeatedly over the four months that followed, as the Dolphins allowed 28.5 points in their eight losses.

They finished the year a disappointing 24th in points allowed (23.5 per game) and defensive EPA per play (.022). Most damaging: They forced the second-fewest turnovers in all of football (14).

Injuries have played a role, certainly. Byron Jones hasn’t played a down this year, and Emmanuel Ogbah missed the season’s last two months. The Dolphins will trot out fourth-stringers in the secondary Sunday.

So on paper, it’s a total mismatch against Josh Allen and a Bills offense that ranked in the top 10 in every major offensive category in 2022. But if you squint hard, you can see signs of Josh Boyer and Miami’s defense finally starting to figure things out at the season’s most critical time.

Dolphins’ Defense Needs To Win Game

The Dolphins have allowed just 23 points in their opponents’ last 20 defensive possessions, including six points total in a Week 18 win over the Jets.

“A six-point outing is tough any way you cut it in the National Football League, and I’ve been really, really proud of them specifically in the last three weeks,” McDaniel said. “I thought that down the stretch when we needed it most, they’d really come through, so yeah, I can’t say enough about that effort when this team needed it.”

They’re going to need it again Sunday — against a far tougher opponent than the Patriots or Jets (Miami’s Week 17 and 18 opponents).

Allen’s name should be on the deed of Hard Rock Stadium. He has an equity stake in the franchise. He’s thrown 27 touchdowns to just five interceptions in 10 career starts against Miami, going 8-2 in those games.

And surprise, surprise, he’s had his most success in games the Bills won. Allen’s completed 64.2% of his passes with a 7.9 yards-per-attempt average and a passer rating of 113.2 in victories.

So what we know what the Dolphins can’t do: Let Allen get loose.

But the good news is there is also tape of what they must do, which is replicate what went right in the two games they’ve won against Allen. Namely, get pressure with their front four, keep Allen in the pocket, and protect their very young back end with zone and double coverages.

The Dolphins were able to sack Allen six times in their two wins vs. Buffalo in the last five years, despite blitzing just 10 times in each of those games — far below their average.

MORE: Can Miami Dolphins QB Skylar Thompson Do The Impossible Against the Buffalo Bills?

This is all a long way of saying they need Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, and Melvin Ingram to play their best games of the year. And they need Xavien Howard to play like the Pro Bowler voters believe he is.

“Every time we played them (this season), the game has been close,” Howard said. “I feel like we’ve been doing an OK job against them. I’m sure they’re going to come with a different game plan and different stuff they’re going to do. We just got to try to stop and contain him.”

Added safety Eric Rowe: “Honestly, our mentality is it doesn’t matter what the offense has going on right now. We’ve just got focus on doing our job because the offense could put up 40 points, but if we don’t do nothing on defense, they could put up 50. We’ve just got to focus on ourselves.”

The Dolphins won’t score 40. And the Bills probably won’t score 50. But even 20 points allowed might be too much. Miami needs to shorten the game on offense and win it on defense.

Asked Wednesday if it’s on the defense to win the game, considering the Dolphins are on their third-string quarterback, linebacker Jerome Baker replied:

“Absolutely. It’s always been on us. It is definitely unfortunate he can’t play, but you win games by playing great defense. If they don’t score any points, you win the game. So it’s going to be up to us, and our defense is up for the challenge.”

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