First, an apology for the delay. I've been busy with stuff at work and the usual stressors of the holidays (travel, gift buying, etc.) Also, I admit I was a bit bummed out by the bittersweet nature of this victory.
The Miami Dolphins won this game but also lost out on a chance at a playoff spot after the Cincinnati Bengals clinched the final wildcard berth by beating the Pittsburgh Steelers. This was a result of the Miami Dolphins failure to win very winnable games such as the matchups against the Jets, Cardinals, Colts, Titans, and Bills. All those losses except the loss to the Colts came against teams with losing records. All those losses except the game against the Titans were decided by a TD or less.
Those losses didn't come down to one person. I can point to multiple mistakes that cost us a chance at the playoffs, such as the missed Dan Carpenter field goals against the Jets and Cardinals; the back-breaking Tannehill interceptions against the Jets, Cardinals, Titans, and Bills; the rare but horrible defensive efforts that allowed the opposing primary threat on a couple of completely one dimensional teams to have career-days against Miami (Andrew Luck set a new rookie single-game passing record against us and Chris Johnson had a 100+ rushing day against us despite being the obvious main threats to contain); and the completely ineffective run game against teams with bad run defenses like the Cardinals, Titans, and Bills.
Dan Carpenter isn't the reason why we got blown out by a very bad Tennessee Titans team. Ryan Tannehill isn't the reason why Andrew Luck had the best game of his career against the Dolphins pass defense. Defense isn't the reason why we lost the games against the Bills and Jets. Etc. My point is that the failure to reach the playoffs resulted from widespread failures. I very much believe the arrow of this team is pointed upwards, but this game, while a big win, illustrated a major problem with Miami, which is a severe lack of depth.
Let's start with Special Teams - another good performance.
Field Goals: Nate Kaeding went 1 for 2 on field goal attempts, connecting on a 45-yard attempt but missing after his 46-yard kick was blocked. Dan Carpenter finished the year on IR after being a perfect 19 for 19 under 45 yards but 3 for 8 (38%) between 45-55 yards for the season (22 for 27). Nate Kaeding so far is 1 for 2 between 45-55 yards.
Special Section - Fake Field goal: Miami curiously opted to have Kaeding pooch-punt a fake 52-yard field goal attempt with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter. It was 4th and 13 on the Buffalo 35 yard line, so punting the ball instead of going for 4th down pinned the Bills back only by 15 yards because the punt resulted in a touchback after bouncing inside the five yard line and rolling into the endzone. This was probably done to catch the Bills by surprise and prevent them from setting up for a punt return.
Kick coverage: On 5 kickoffs, 3 were touchbacks. In the 2 "returnable" kicks, the Dolphins held the Bills to an average of 16 yards and a long of 20 yards.
Kick returns: Marcus Thigpen had 2 returns for an average of 25 yards and a long of 28 yards.
Punt coverage: Brandon Fields punted 3 times for an average of 42.4 yards and a long of 44.0 yards, with a net average of 36.0 yards, and 2 downed inside the 20. On 1 punt return, the Bills punt returner Justin Rodgers was held to an average/long of 14 yards per return.
Punt returns: Thigpen returned 2 punts, averaging 13 yards per return with a long of 20 yards. The Bills punter Shawn Powell averaged 36.3 net yards punting on 4 punts, with 0 downed inside the 20 yard line and a long of 60 yards.
Coaching/Overall - A mostly solid performance overall. The pooch punt was a sound idea that failed because no Dolphins player fielded the kick that bounced inside the 10 yard line. The blocked field goal was disappointing but turned out to not be crucial this game. Other than that, no major errors were made.
Next, the Defense - a good but not elite performance aided by rare good luck when it came to fumble recoveries.
Run defense: Allowed 136 yards rushing on 24 carries by Bills running backs (5.7 yards per carry). If Ryan Fitzpatrick's 4 carries for 18 yards are included, that's a total of 28 carries for 154 yards (5.5 yards per carry). However, 40% of those yards came on one 62-yard run in which multiple Miami defenders (Chris Clemons, Karlos Dansby, etc.) missed tackles on CJ Spiller. Olivier Vernon managed to slow Spiller down 40 yards downfield, which allowed Sean Smith to finally tackle him. Excluding that run, Miami allowed 27 carries for 92 yards (3.4 yards per carry). I'd describe it as a good game in terms of run defense, except for 1 huge play. That's been the trend for Miami when up against running backs with breakaway speed. Tough, in-between the tackles running backs like Shonn Greene and Marshawn Lynch have horrible games against Miami, while guys with speed having usually managed to break off 1 huge run while otherwise being bottled up.
Pass rushing: Miami did an okay job bringing pressure, finishing the game with 2 sacks on 37 Fitzpatrick drop-backs, but the defense had to rely on blitzes to reach Fitzpatrick for the most part. Olivier Vernon had his first sack in over a month, while Cameron Wake had a strip-sack that resulted in a very rare Miami fumble recovery.
Pass coverage: Fitzpatrick had an average passing day - 20 of 35, for 240 yards and 1 TD and 1 INT (57% completion, 6.9 yards per attempt). He got into rhythm in the fourth quarter and put his team in position to score touchdown that would make it a one-score game, but Fitzpatrick then threw a red-zone INT to Reshad Jones which ended the game.
Bills receivers T.J. Graham (3 catches for 49 yards) and Stevie Johnson (4 catches for 44 yards) were well-contained, though Johnson did help Miami with 3 drops. Ruvell Martin (2 catches for 22 yards) and Brad Smith (2 catches for 11 yards and a touchdown) were barely productive. That's a total of 11 catches for 126 yards or 11.5 yards per catch for wide receivers - overall, a good showing, especially considering that Sean Smith had to leave the game due to injury, and the cornerback starting opposite Smith was a waiver-wire pickup (Dimitri Patterson) from the Browns. With Smith dealing with a knee bruise, Richard Marshall on IR due to a blood clot in the back, and Nolan Carroll being inactive this game with his own knee injury, Miami's top-3 cornerbacks are all injured. After Smith's injury, Miami had to play without ANY of the team's top-3 cornerbacks. Without the Patterson waiver-wire pickup, our cornerback situation would be extremely dire.
As for tight ends - Dorin Dickerson (4 catches for 54 yards) and Scott Chandler (1 catch for 25 yards) finished with 5 catches for 79 yards (15.8 yards per catch), an okay performance with the caveat that Chandler (their #1 TE) had to leave the game early due to injury.
As for the running backs/fullback - CJ Spiller had 4 catches for 35 yards (8.8 yards per catch).
Coaching/Overall: The Dolphins only allowed 10 points.
Our redzone defense was solid, with 1 of 2 Bills redzone possessions ending in a touchdown, the other ending in a Reshad Jones interception.
Our third down defense was solid, as Miami allowed the Bills to only convert 6 of 14 third downs (42%).
Kevin Coyle Effect: Miami generated a rare interception. Out of 15 games so far, Miami's defensive backs failed to generate an interception in 8 games, compared to 7 games with an interception. The Dolphins have now recovered 6 of 22 forced fumbles this season, with 3 of the 6 fumble recoveries occurring in this one game. Combine that with the interception, and Miami's defense forced 4 turnovers, a very rare feat for the Dolphins defense.
Statistics like opposing QB rating, rushing yards allowed, and yards allowed per carry are all evidence for Miami being a top-10 defense, but Miami is among the league-worst in generating turnovers. The only defensive back who qualifies as a "ball-hawk" in our secondary is Reshad Jones. Carroll and Wilson have 0 INTs, Clemons has just 2 interceptions (both off of Mark Sanchez), Richard Marshall had 1 interception before going on IR, and Sean Smith has just 2 interceptions (both off Kevin Kolb). Despite having an elite run defense that encourages teams to pass, Miami regularly is below-average in terms of interceptions for the past few years. This is a situation that begs for new talent in the secondary.
Miami's defense generated turnovers and limited the Bills to just 10 points for the game. The only disappointments were allowing CJ Spiller to break off a 62 yard run (he was well-contained otherwise) and failing to generate more pressure with our front-4.
Last, the Offense - which has continued to show signs of creativity as well as a lack of depth.
Offensive line: In terms of pass protection, Miami yielded just 2 sacks, both to defensive tackle Marcel Dareus. One sack occurred with Dareus completely unblocked due to a communication breakdown. Otherwise, though, Tannehill was well protected. Good game by Jonathan Martin overall, where in addition to doing a decent job in pass protection he actually moved people in the run game. It should be noted that he spent most of this game up against an injury replacement at defensive end. I'm hoping he's matched up against Chandler Jones next week, just to see how Martin matches up against the Patriots' rookie defensive end who is already their best pass-rusher.
In terms of run blocking, Miami's running backs found some success, with Lamar Miller in particular doing a great job of hitting holes decisively for steady gains.
Receivers/Tight Ends: Anthony Fasano had an okay game, mostly used a blocker, with 2 catches for 12 yards, surpassing 300 yards for the season.
Michael Egnew was active, and given several snaps (0 pass targets). While this was largely due to Charles Clay's season-ending injury, it was good to see that in addition to making him active, the coaching staff gave him some in-game experience. A lot of the newer generation of coaches come up with special "play-packages" for raw players such as Jimmy Graham who entered the NFL as limited blockers and route-runners. However, Mike Sherman strikes me as the "old school" type of coach who demands players be capable of doing everything that's asked of them before they get on the field, which has probably hurt Egnew, who was extremely raw as a blocker coming out of college.
Davone Bess missed this game due to back injury.
Brian Hartline finished with 2 catches for 12 yards while limited with a back injury.
Marlon Moore had 0 catches.
Rishard Matthews had 2 catches for 37 yards. One catch was a great grab running down the seam for 30 yards, which resulted in Matthews getting decked by a safety but hanging onto the ball.
Armon Binns, a waiver-wire pickup from Cincinnati, continues to be given regular targets despite barely being on the team for 2 weeks. He finished with 3 catches for 27 yards, converting two 3rd-downs.
Running backs/Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane had no carries or catches but had some nice blocks.
Reggie Bush finished with 19 carries for 65 yards (3.4 yards per carry) and 4 catches for 42 yards (10.5 yards per catch), with 3 total TDs (2 passing, 1 rushing).
Lamar Miller contributed 10 carries for 73 yards (7.3 yards per carry).
Quarterback: My thoughts about Tannehill....
Alright game by Tannehill. He made some nice plays with his legs, finishing with 6 carries for 44 yards (7.3 yards per carry). He went 13 of 25 (52%) for 130 yards (5.2 yards per attempt) for 2 TDs and 0 INTs. Those are mediocre passing numbers, but he was playing without his #2 WR or #2 TE, and his #1 WR (Hartline) was limited by a back injury. It's reached the point where it's really hard to critique Tannehill given how thin our receiving corps have become. Our leading receiver was a running back (Bush) with 4 catches. While not a fantastic game, Tannehill made enough plays for the team to win.
Coaching/Overall: Our offense was balanced - with 35 rushing plays compared to 27 passing plays. Miami's struggles on third down were avoided for a second game as Miami went a solid 7 for 14 (50%) on third downs. Mike Sherman also decide to try Bush as a redzone receiving threat on 2 plays: a terrific fade pass for a TD (watch here) as well as a nice Reggie Bush catch-and-run TD play (watch here). Sherman has continued using Tannehill as a runner more but said it was mainly due to the Bills' demonstrated weakness against mobile QBs and shouldn't be viewed as a start of a new long-term trend. Sherman has also continued to recent trend of putting Miller and Bush on the field at the same time. Sherman explained that he didn't feel comfortable with our team executing these new plays and formations earlier in the year because they were learning a completely new system. The fact that Sherman has begun to demonstrate some creativity the past couple of weeks has reassured me that Sherman is capable and willing to tailor new plays for specific opponents. I was getting worried he was becoming Dan Henning 2.0, who believed that his job after games was to blame players for "not executing well enough," even when opposing defensive backs were bragging they were able to predict the routes our receivers were running and everybody could see that opposing defenses had "figured out" the Wildcat.
Referee Critique: A major Dolphins beat writer described this game as a "season's worth of make-up calls" and I agree. Every video review went Miami's way, and Miami wasn't penalized until the 4th quarter. Can't complain.
In Summary: A near-complete team win against a divisional opponent who beat Miami just a few weeks ago. Offense, defense, and special teams made a some mistakes, but Miami won in all 3 phases of the game, though the lack of receiver depth is a huge concern.
A Look Ahead: Just 1 game to go, with an 8-8 finish in reach.
So far this season, Miami has a potential trend developing. First game against a division opponent - closely fought loss. Second game against a division opponent, double digit win.
Jets Game 1: 20-23 (OT), Jets game 2: 30-9
Bills Game 1: 14-19, Bills game 2: 24-10
Patriots Game 1: 16-23, Patriots game 2: ?
The nice part about division games is they allow fans to see coaching in action. Teams study film before every game to develop game-plans that are designed to take away strengths and exploit weaknesses. In this regard, Miami's coaches have mostly held their own but have come up just short of victory in the first division matchup. However, in the second matchup, coaches then have to make adjustments to how the opponent played them last time, and Miami has shown improvement in both sides of the ball but especially on defense. Miami's defense has allowed an average of 21 points in our first games against the Jets/Bills but only 9.5 points against those division rivals in second games.
Obviously, the game against the Patriots will be key because out-coaching Rex Ryan and Chan Gailey doesn't mean much with those coaches on the hot-seat this year while Bill Belichick is the coach to beat in the AFC East. My prediction is Rex stays, but Gailey gets fired. Still, while the Miami Dolphins (as the title of this post notes) are now playing for pride because the Bengals clinched the final wildcard spot, how this team does against New England will tell us a lot about our future "chess matches" between Philbin's staff and Belichick's staff.
While it's unlikely the Broncos lose to the Chiefs next week (which is the only way the Broncos aren't a top-2 seed), the Houston Texans have been looking vulnerable. If the Texans lose to the Colts, the Patriots would claim a top-2 seed by beating Miami. That gives the Patriots a reason to play their starters for most of their game against Miami, so Miami should expect good effort from the Patriots. My hunch is Miami's pass rush will be critical in 2 ways. First, pass rush is the best way to disrupt Brady, and disrupting Brady is the primary objective when trying to beat the Patriots. Second, if Brady looks set for another 4+ sack game (like the first game against Miami), that might convince Belichick to pull Brady at halftime, especially if both the Broncos and Texans are well ahead of their opponents. If Brady stays in the entire game, one of 2 things results. Either Miami earns a quality-win against a division opponent that actively tried to win the game, OR Miami loses this game, which improves draft position and gets a slightly easier schedule (facing Titans and Raiders instead of Colts and Chargers next year).
As I wrote last week, an 8-8 finish (3-3 in the division) would be a good building point for next season (9+ wins is what I'm expecting) and would accurately reflect how our team has played for most of this season, and that should be the goal. Still, even a loss would have some silver lining, and I look forward to enjoying a final Dolphins game this season before the roster undergoes major changes this offseason.