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Playoff hopes take big hit as Dolphins fall in Buffalo

The Dolphins arrived in Buffalo this weekend with nine days of rest since scratching and clawing their way back to .500 and back into the AFC playoff picture. But they left Buffalo again under the .500 mark after losing 31-14 to the Bills on Sunday. Just like that, the playoffs suddenly seem out of sight.

Generally, losses don't bother me too much. They won't stay with me for too much longer after the game is over. And if this was a loss to a quality opponent, I'd probably be over it already. But it's hard to swallow the idea that the Dolphins, after fighting so hard to get back to .500, would lose to this Bills team. If it were the Patriots, for example, I'd chalk this loss up to losing to a better team and move on. But the Bills are not a better team. That's why this one is so painful.

Play-calling a big problem
I know already that I'm going to get crap for talking about this. But if you've been around here long enough, then you know that I try my best not to ever kill the play-calling of any team - especially the Dolphins. Why? Calling plays is a tricky thing. When a risky play works, it's a great call. When it doesn't, it's a terrible call. Fans are fickle when it comes to this - which is why I try my best to stay out of it.

With that said, it's impossible not to highlight just how absolutely disgusting some of Dan Henning's play calls were on Sunday.

It all begins, of course, with that atrocious decision to let Ricky Williams throw the ball on Miami's first possession on a 1st & goal from Buffalo's 3 yard line. The Bills had just gone three and out to start the game and the Dolphins had methodically driven down to Buffalo's three on just eight plays. Chad Henne had converted a 3rd & 7 pass to Davone Bess for 15 yards just three plays into the drive. From there, Ricky had run for gains of 11, 7, 6, and 5 to get down to the 3 yard line. So what does Henning decide to do? He decides to let Ricky throw the ball out of the 'Wildcat" on 1st & goal - resulting in that costly interception.

For a team that prides itself on power running football - which was clearly working - they sure do go away from it pretty quickly, don't they? The Bills looked like they wanted no part of stopping Williams on that first drive. So let's have Ricky pass it. Sure - great idea.

I'm not against the idea of passing it down around the goalline. But at least let Chad Henne attempt the pass. Don't have Ricky - who hasn't attempted a pass in the NFL since 2000 - throw it.

Some of you might be asking why I'm spending so much time on this one play call when the Dolphins lost by 17. Well that's simple. And I said this during the game in our game thread - and it turned out to be true. When you're playing a bad team in their own stadium in a game you have to have, it's important not to let that bad team hang around. It's that simple. A touchdown on that opening drive changes the entire complexion of this game. It doesn't give the Bills any life or any confidence. And who is to say that if the Dolphins get off to a 14-0 lead when Brian Hartline scores his touchdown that the Bills just don't begin to collapse?

But that wasn't the only bad play call. The other occurred on the Dolphins third offensive possession. The Bills had just gone three and out again and the Dolphins were leading 7-0 (should have been 14, but I guess I have to let it go). The Bills had not even come close to stopping Miami's offense on their first two drives - except for that poor decision to have Williams throw it. The Dolphins were at their own 46 yard line following an 11 yard pass completion and two Ricky runs of 6 yards and 5 yards. Up to this point, in fact, the Dolphins were averaging a robust 6.7 yards per play. So what does Henning dial up? An end-around to Ted Ginn. Are you kidding me?

The play loses four yards. The Dolphins gain 11 more over their next two plays, not enough for the first following the drive-killing end-around, and are forced to punt.

Time and time again, it seems like Dan Henning gets too "cute" with his play calls. On Sunday, the Bills defense looked like a mess in the first half. But Henning let them off the hook with some piss-poor decisions. And while I'm not one to over-react too often, I suddenly went from defending Henning from those who were calling for his head to not caring one way or the other if Henning was to get fired.

The Dolphins could have easily had put away the Bills early on Sunday. But they let a bad team hang around, gain confidence, and the end result was a potentially season-ending loss to a team that really isn't any good (on paper, that is).

Tale of two Henne's
Sunday was the first time since becoming the starting quarterback of the Miami Dolphins that Chad Henne laid an egg. But I guess the bigger story here is how surprised I was to see him lay that egg considering this was only his eighth career start.

What made his late-game struggles even more frustrating was how good Henne looked through the first three quarters. His throws were very strong and on target en route to completing 13 of 17 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown. And that touchdown pass was a beautiful throw by Henne, buying time and letting Brian Hartline go up and make a play in the back corner of the endzone. Kudos to Hartline for making that outstanding play, too.

But the fourth quarter was a disaster for Henne. Following Buffalo's game-tying touchdown early in the fourth, Henne was just 4 of 14 for 50 yards and three interceptions. The interceptions, however, don't bother me too much. The first one was a result of Henne getting hit when he threw, causing an underthrow to an open Hartline. The third was a tipped ball by a lineman during garbage time that landed in the arms of a defender. The second one, though was a little bothersome because it wasn't the first time I noticed Henne staring down his receiver.

What worries me more than the staring down of a receiver on occasion was how inaccurate Henne looked during the fourth quarter. His throws were all over the place, it seemed, during that fourth quarter. I don't get it. He was impressively accurate through the first three quarters. And it's not like Henne to get rattled in a close game - as we saw against the Jets and the Bucs.

Hopefully we can just chalk it up to his maturation process as a starting quarterback in this league and move on.

I was tempted to make the Ricky Williams interception the turning point of the game. But with 3:30 to go, the Dolphins had the football and were down by just three points. The turning point was just three plays later when Henne was hit as he threw, causing his pass to an open Brian Hartline to fall short and get intercepted. On the next play, Terrell Owens caught a long touchdown pass to seal the deal.

Some more quick thoughts on the game:

  • Ricky Williams had another great day - turning in his third consecutive 100 yard game. But you have to wonder if the Dolphins should have used a little more Lex Hilliard - especially in the first half - to keep Ricky fresh. Williams had just 12 carries for 36 yards in the second half.
  • The end of the first half was painful - as the Dolphins left more points on the field. It started out with two drops - one by Ted Ginn and one by Davone Bess (though Davone's was a very tough catch - he's just been so good recently I expect him to catch everything). And then on a 4th & 1 from Buffalo's 40 and the Dolphins going for it, Nate Garner gets caught holding - negating Lousaka Polite's 3 yard run and forcing Miami to punt.
  • Speaking of Ginn, he looked lost returning kicks today.
  • And speaking of looking lost, Vontae Davis had a rough day. He mistimed a pass to Terrell Owens in the fourth quarter that could have been an interception deep in Buffalo territory. Instead, it was a 17 yard gain for Owens. Miami's pass rush bailed him out, though, stalling the drive a few plays later. And then later, Davis was badly beaten by Owens for the game-sealing 51 yard touchdown pass. He claims Owens pushed off. I don't know if that's true. Either way, it was a tough game for the rookie. But both he and Sean Smith have bright futures in this league - my opinion hasn't changed one bit.
  • I love the pass rush today as the Dolphins tallied six sacks. But keep in mind that it was against one of the worst offensive lines in football and one that was without a number of starters.
  • Miami's offensive line, on the other hand, disappointed me. Chad Henne was getting drilled a lot in this game - though the stat sheet only shows one sack allowed. I counted at least 5 or 6 times in which Henne was hit as he threw or right after he threw - including on the first interception thrown by Henne.
  • Anthony Fasano looked very good today - showing those flashes he showed last season.
  • Brian Hartline also looked good. What a tremendous catch in the endzone. But what an even more impressive play by Hartline on their first possession of the second half - when he caught a pass at Buffalo's 8 or 9 yard line but had the presence of mind to get up and gain about 7 more yards after falling to the ground making the catch. He realized he wasn't touched while he was down, got up, and almost got into the endzone for the second time in the game.
  • After surrendering 24 points in the fourth quarter on Sunday, the Dolphins are allowing an average of 12.2 points per game in the fourth on the season - the most in the league.
  • Lots of poor tackling in that fourth quarter, by the way. Not good.

Want to see something upsetting? Look at the AFC playoff picture. A win over the Bills today would have tied the Dolphins with three other teams for that second wildcard spot. And the Dolphins still have games against two of those teams they would have been tied with.

Even so, the Dolphins still have a slim chance to get back into the thick of things. At least, that's what the "homer" in me will believe for the  time being.

But somebody said in one of the posts that not making the playoffs doesn't make this season a failure. That's 100% true. But if the Dolphins miss the playoffs by one game, this is the game that I will think back to most. Not the game against the Colts. Not the game against the Saints. This one.

Why? Because the Dolphins are a better football team than the Bills. I can tolerate losses where this team is competitive against superior teams. However, I simply can't stomach losing to teams that the Dolphins should beat.

All I was hoping for this season in terms of wins and losses was for Miami to be in the playoff hunt in December so we could watch meaningful December football. We still have that. But this upcoming month of December would have been a million times more exciting if the Dolphins had won this game in Buffalo.