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Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills

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Dolphins vs. Bills preview 2023 Wild Card weekend: Slowing Josh Allen, forcing turnovers, and a historic point spread

The Miami Dolphins head into the playoffs with a familiar opponent looming on the schedule: the Buffalo Bills. How will this AFC East version of a Wild Card Weekend contest play out? We turned to Buffalo Rumblings for some insight.

Photo by Kevin Sabitus/Getty Images

For the first time since 2016, the Miami Dolphins have made it to the playoffs - and they immediately face a division rival as the postseason starts. Miami and the Buffalo Bills will meet Sunday afternoon in the rubber match for the 2022-2023 season after the teams split the regular season home-and-home series. How will this game go down? Can the Dolphins, entering the postseason as the seventh seed in the AFC, upset the conference’s second seed and the preseason Super Bowl favorites?

The Dolphins and Bills are obviously familiar with each other, though this Miami team will look different than the previous versions Buffalo played. The Dolphins are heading into this game with quarterback Skylar Thompson, a seventh-round draft pick this year, preparing for his second-straight start and third of the year. Starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa continues to be sidelined with a concussion while backup Teddy Bridgewater is expected to be available on an emergency basis after sustaining a dislocated finger in Week 17. Thompson will also be behind an offensive line that could see several players shifted around as injuries have taken their toll there as well.

The Bills, meanwhile, come into this weekend’s game looking relatively healthy and peaking as the playoffs begin. Add in the amazing news that safety Damar Hamlin, who went into cardiac arrest on the field in Week 17, has been discharged from the hospital, returned home to his family, and has met with the team, and things are positive for Buffalo right now. Can Miami pull off an upset win this weekend?

To get a better look at the Bills for the third time this year, I turned to Buffalo Rumblings’ TheAfghanTwilight.

I have used Josh Allen as the example almost every week this season as to where Miami’s biggest weakness is on defense - they struggle against a running quarterback. Justin Fields proved that as well. Knowing full well that if you keep him from running, Allen is probably going to torch the defense with his arm, has anything worked to slow down Allen’s running? Also, obviously, the elbow injury to Allen did not cause the Bills to fall off or anything this year, but how much concern is there for Allen’s arm and any offseason treatment he may need?

Buffalo Bills v New England Patriots Photo by Billie Weiss/Getty Images

The Patriots seemed to do well stopping Allen’s run threat in Week 18, limiting him to nine carries for 16 yards. They likely committed to doing so, but at the expense of their pass defense. Allen simply didn’t need to run because there were so many opportunities downfield. Allen and Diggs rekindled their magic, and the offense got its long-ball groove back in the final week of the regular season with touchdowns of 42 and 49 yards. Whether that’s a trend that continues remains to be seen – because there were many weeks in 2022 where the offense didn’t generate a pass play of at least 20 yards.

New England fields a fantastic defense, but it’s possible they sold out too much to contain Allen’s rushing yards. Some defensive coordinators prefer allowing a QB to run all over the field if it means limiting their effectiveness through the air. Doing so with Allen might not be the best course of action, because Allen makes just as many incredible throws on the run as he does in the pocket.

Allen’s elbow injury continues to show up on the team’s injury report each week. I’m not a doctor, obviously, but I’d venture a guess that whatever condition it’s in at this point there must be continued pain and/or discomfort from use. Whether it’s in need of a surgical procedure in the offseason or simply rest, remains to be seen.

2. The Bills finished the season even in turnovers, having taken the ball away 27 times and lost the ball 27 times. That is good enough for the fourth-most takeaways, but also bad enough for the third-most giveaways. Why have the Bills given away the ball that much this season and is there something Miami can exploit to force a turnover?

Green Bay Packers v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Bills have lacked a consistent receiving threat outside of Stefon Diggs for much of the season. Wide receiver Gabe Davis has taken a step back in terms of reliability and efficiency, though his stats say otherwise. Isaiah McKenzie hasn’t flourished in an expanded role. It’s almost a guarantee that the team brought back wide receivers John Brown and Cole Beasley to provide a reliable spark. It was reported that Allen lobbied for their return. What the means to the confidence of the others, I can’t reliably speak on.

Amazingly, even though Diggs remains WR1 and leagues ahead of everyone else in the wide receiver room, he continues to make plays when everyone knows he’s the key. I fully believe that Diggs is as important to Buffalo’s offense as is Allen. They bring out the elite in each other.

But the turnovers have come in spades this season. I’m of the opinion that his elbow injury played a bit of a role in more than a few of those interceptions. But there were more than a few weeks where so much of what had worked on offense wasn’t, and Allen appeared to press more to compensate for a lack of complementary ball. While the Bills’ run game was more productive than given credit for, far too many weeks it was Allen who led the ground game. Simply put – a lot of the time, it felt like Allen was tasked with wearing too many hats on offense this season.

Certainly, Miami can exploit Allen’s game to their benefit. I believe the trick to getting Allen to throw an interception is to lure him into a sense of false security with a combination of coverages and blitzes. That’s likely true of any quarterback. But blitzing Allen and allowing him to create magic out of the pocket against easily diagnosed coverage is an inadvisable gameplan. Allen sees the field better than most quarterbacks, and he doesn’t need rhythm to get really hot really quickly. He can misfire for several drives then go Mortal Kombat the next drive out of nowhere. His play against the Baltimore Ravens earlier in 2022 comes to mind.

The Bills’ defense has been really good for the most part this year, but the secondary has had some issues this year - especially with injuries to Micah Hyde and Damar Hamlin. Tre’Davious White is still someone to stay away from in the passing game, but can Miami find success passing the ball against the Bills in this game?

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

Oh absolutely, Miami can and probably will find success if Thompson is able to adequately handle his end of business. In the preseason, it was widely held that Buffalo’s secondary was among the strongest units on the team. Of course, injury is an equalizer matched only by weather, and a perceived strength became the defense’s weakest unit.

Against the Patriots, the Bills struggled to stop Mac Jones of all people (13-of-16 for 119 yards and 2 TDs). For much of the first half, they ran Cover 3 with a little man-to-man sprinkled in. This allowed the receivers to run wide open for huge chunks. Jones had similar success in the second half, but he threw three interceptions. Buffalo made halftime adjustments to utilize more exotic coverages that detrimentally flustered Jones in key situations.

If Thompson can find similar statistical success to that of Jones but avoid the turnovers – there’s no reason to think that Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle tally a spare day catching footballs.

Yes, that’s true even with Tre’Davious White on the field. Since White’s return to play as the team’s fulltime CB1, he appears to lack some speed. That got the best of him in Week 15, as he allowed huge plays to wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle.

All that said above, I’ll provide fair warning: What looks like success against Buffalo’s defense to those who play fantasy football might play out differently in-game. Stats are sometimes deceiving as it relates to success. The Bills are willing to allow yards between the 20s, but very stingy down close to the goal.

4. Given this is game three in this year’s Dolphins-Bills series, there may not be a true answer to this, but who is someone Dolphins fans may not know who will make a difference on offense for Buffalo in this game (and you cannot use practice-squad promoted Cole Beasley - sorry)? On defense?

NFL: JAN 02 Bills at Bengals Photo by Ian Johnson/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Have I mentioned fifth-round rookie wide receiver Khalil Shakir? To this point in the development of “10,” Shakir’s game is one of great football intelligence and reliability. Those traits have allowed him to remain uber productive in very small sample sizes. He might only see one or two passes his way, but they’re likely to be meaningful plays. He’s been a target of Allen’s in the end zone, both for touchdowns and on two-point tries. He possesses a great deal of elusiveness and deceptive speed. Again, it’s not likely you’ll see him play a ton of snaps, but he’s an efficient gamer. If I have mentioned him, then it’s Buffalo’s fullback – Reggie Gilliam. He’s mostly used to bowl people over, but offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has put “41” out wide as a deep receiver, and he often finds his way on the field in the red zone.

On defense? It’s safety Dean Marlowe, who’s in his second stint with the Bills. A trade acquisition at the 2022 deadline, Marlowe had not seen any game action at safety until last weekend. He started in place of Damar Hamlin, who had started 14 games in place of an injured Micah Hyde. While news on Hyde’s eventual return is encouraging (following a serious neck injury in September that required surgery), the position is still Marlowe’s for the time being. He has familiarity with the system, and he’s a capable backup with starter’s upside. He logged 100% of snaps (68) as the team’s single-high safety in Week 18. He’s not an elite athlete, but he’s another intelligent player. Marlowe doesn’t have great speed, but he plays a very physical downhill attacking brand of football.

The oddsmakers at DraftKings Sportsbook have this game listed at 13 points in favor of the Bills, which I read somewhere was the largest point spread ever in a wild card round game. I am sure this line would be different if Miami had a healthy Tua Tagovailoa under center, but it looks like it will be rookie Skylar Thompson starting for the Dolphins again. Do you think 13 points is a valid line? Do you think Miami can keep this closer than that, or are you expecting the Bills to dominate and cover that line?

New England Patriots v Buffalo Bills Photo by Bryan Bennett/Getty Images

I think it’s a valid line, even though it’s a playoff game. If you consider the way the Dolphins’ finished the regular season, then it makes even more sense since Skylar Thompson is once again going to be the starting quarterback, and it will be his first time facing the Bills.

Head coach Sean McDermott and defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier both have a stellar track record against rookie quarterbacks, going 8-3 since 2017. Furthermore, no rookie QB has ever thrown for more than one touchdown pass against their defenses over that time. Those quarterbacks — Tua Tagovailoa, Justin Herbert, Trevor Lawrence, Sam Darnold, Davis Mills, Dwayne Haskins, Duck Hodges, and Kenny Pickett — have thrown a combined 4 TDs and 14 interceptions in those games.

Now, it’s important to note that Kenny Pickett had a great deal of success throwing the ball on Buffalo’s defense earlier in the 2022 season. He excessively targeted rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam. Though, to his credit, Elam did not give up a touchdown. But I would suspect that Mike McDaniel will have studied what Pickett and the Pittsburgh Steelers did to move the ball so well through the air. (Hint, Tre’Davious White not playing may have played a large role.) But Elam is most likely going to play Sunday. The counterpoint is that Elam has had success as a rookie against the Dolphins. He’s fast and physical, and I think that’s the key to stopping a guy like Tyreek Hill. You must get him out of his element early and often to disrupt both his speed and timing.

Working in Miami’s favor this week, even with Thompson at QB, is the potential for the Bills’ secondary to continue giving up big catches and touchdowns. Should the Bills lose, I believe it’ll be due to issues in the defensive backfield. Aside from general roster health, the one thing in Buffalo’s favor this week is their cheat code: 17+14 = 6

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