AFC East champion Bills host wild-card-seeking Dolphins
The Miami Dolphins seek their third win in as many weeks when they head north to square off with the Buffalo Bills on Sunday afternoon in a game with plenty at stake for both sides. The Bills have already secured the AFC East division title and can lock up the No. 2 seed in the AFC with a win or a Pittsburgh loss, while the Dolphins can clinch a playoff berth with either a win or a loss by any of Baltimore, Cleveland, or Indianapolis.
Miami has rattled off nine wins in its last 11 games with the two losses coming by a total of 13 points while nearly averaging that margin in the nine wins — posting an average margin of victory of 12.4 points per game in that span. And the Dolphins' latest win was perhaps their most thrilling yet, a 26-25 come-from-behind victory at Las Vegas last Saturday night. Tied 16-16 with under four minutes left in regulation, the two sides exchanged long touchdown passes on subsequent drives, but Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson missed his extra point, which led to a 23-22 Miami lead entering the final two minutes. The Raiders immediately drove down the field and ran down the clock before Carlson converted on a field goal with 19 seconds left, but an unbelievable no-look pass by Ryan Fitzpatrick put Miami in range for a game-winning 44-yard field goal, which Jason Sanders converted as time expired.
Buffalo's Week 16 was much less stressful, notching its fifth straight win — and eighth in nine games — with a 38-9 win at New England on the season's final edition of "Monday Night Football." Both sides tallied a touchdown and field goal in the first 25 minutes, though Nick Folk's missed extra point kept Buffalo in front 10-9 early in the second quarter. But four touchdown passes by Josh Allen — three to Stefon Diggs — put the Bills in cruise control as Diggs extended his NFL lead in receptions (120) and surged ahead of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce for the top spot in yards (1,459).
While Miami is still in search of a playoff spot, Buffalo has already won the AFC East and clinched its first division title since 1995. The Bills hadn't won 12 games since finishing 12-4 in 1993, and a win on Sunday would clinch the franchise's first 13-win season since 1991. Those years represent postseasons that Bills fans haven't seen in a long time: advancement past the wild-card round. Each of Buffalo's last five postseason appearances has resulted in a wild-card round exit, a far cry from the run of four consecutive Super Bowl appearances — all losses — between 1990 and 1993.
Miami at Buffalo
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. ET
Spread: Bills -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Can the Bills crack the code of the Dolphins' defense?
Buffalo enters the final week of the regular season with the fourth-best offense at 392.5 total yards per game, thanks in large part to its 282.9 passing yards per game, which trails only Kansas City for the top mark in the league. In addition to Diggs' continued effectiveness, Cole Beasley sits just 33 yards short of 1,000, good for a top-20 mark in the NFL.
Miami presents a difficult test, though, especially as the season has progressed. The Dolphins allow an NFL-best 18.8 points per game and have held three of their last five opponents under 13 points. Despite keeping teams off the scoreboard, Miami continues to find itself squarely in the middle of the league in yards allowed, giving up the 13th-most total yards and 14th-most passing. The Dolphins' bend-don't-break style — they are fifth in red zone defense and tied for first in takeaways — has worked against most teams but was handled by Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs' offense, so Buffalo will have their hands full against a Miami defense hungry to avenge its Week 2 loss.
2. Can Tua have a bounceback performance?
After another win in which Ryan Fitzpatrick entered in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, questions again emerged over which of the two signal-callers should start for the Dolphins in Week 17 and — should they make it — the playoffs. In eight starts (Weeks 8-11, 13-16) this season, Tagovailoa has completed 149 of 230 passes (64.8 percent) for 1,444 yards and 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions. Fitzpatrick, meanwhile, also has played well in his seven starts, throwing 10 touchdowns of his own (with seven interceptions) while tallying 256 passing yards per game in those contests alone.
After last week's comeback win, Flores announced that Tagovailoa would remain the starter, but any drama concerning a mid-game switch was removed on Thursday when Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19. That means that Miami will be more limited in how it runs its offense, and the Bills will have less to worry about when preparing for the Dolphins. However, the offense has played well under both the low-variance rookie and gunslinging veteran, posting only three games under 20 points this season.
One noticeable difference between the two quarterbacks has been the play-calling, which is reflected in their respective average yards per pass attempt. Miami has a more vertical approach with Fitzpatrick, who averages over a yard more per attempt (7.59) in his starts than Tagovailoa (6.28). When adding in Fitzpatrick's two appearances in relief, the difference is even starker, as Fitzpatrick jumps to 7.83 yards per attempt. However, the flip side is that with more aggressive throws comes more risk. Fitzpatrick's 3.0 percent interception rate is fifth-highest among qualified passers, while Tagovailoa's 0.9 percent mark is the best in the league.
Tagovailoa has been able to push the offense on occasion. Against Arizona, Cincinnati, and Kansas City, he threw for 248, 296, and 316 yards, respectively, on 8.86, 8.1, and 6.48 yards per attempt. Avoiding turnovers is nice if the defense steps up, but the Dolphins may need more offense than usual against the Bills. Keeping his completion percentage north of 60 — something he's done in just half of his eight starts — and his yards per attempt above seven — something he's done just twice — will be key.
3. Who wins the turnover battle?
Both of these teams rank among the league's best in takeaways. Miami and Pittsburgh are tied for the league lead with 27 apiece and Buffalo (22) is tied for fifth with Tennessee, Kansas City, and Carolina. Xavien Howard's nine interceptions lead the league, Tre'Davious White is the high man for Buffalo with three, while Miami's Eric Rowe and Nik Needham joining Buffalo's Jordan Poyer at two apiece.
On the offensive side of the ball, Miami enters Week 17 tied for the fifth-fewest giveaways with 16, leading to a plus-11 turnover margin which matches Tennessee for the best differential in the NFL. Meanwhile, Buffalo has lost 20 turnovers this season for a plus-two margin, a mark squarely in the middle of the league. Week 16 was actually both teams' first game not turning the ball over since Week 9 wins against Arizona (Miami) and Seattle (Buffalo). If this becomes a close game, the real key will be which team can better protect the football down the stretch.
Miami has just one win in Buffalo since 2012 and only four since 2004. But despite their overall lack of success in Orchard Park, three of the Dolphins' four such wins have been in the month of December, though the key difference this year is that both Buffalo and Miami are fighting for playoff positioning. Facing a Buffalo team likely to rest some of its starters, a win isn't a must for Miami to make the playoffs, but it would provide a strong momentum boost in the Dolphins' quest for their first playoff win in 20 years.
Prediction: Dolphins 27, Bills 23
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.