The Miami Dolphins swept the Buffalo Bills in 2011, but changes at head coach (Joe Philbin) and quarterback (Ryan Tannehill) may send this once-storied series in an entirely new direction.
While the Buffalo Bills were adding major pieces to their roster (and raising franchise expectations as a result) this off-season, the Miami Dolphins were re-tooling, bringing in former Green Bay offensive coordinator Joe Philbin as their new head coach and making a rookie Top 10 draft pick, Ryan Tannehill, their new starting quarterback.
Needless to say, to this point in the season, neither team has met expectations. Buffalo sits at 3-6 and is in the midst of a three-game losing streak, while the Dolphins are a surprising 4-5 - and a recent two-game slide separates them from serious playoff rhetoric.
Tannehill, this year's No. 8 overall pick out of Texas A&M, has had stretches of excellent play in his first pro season. When he struggles, however, so does Miami; he threw three interceptions in a Week 1 loss to Houston, three more in a two-week span featuring losses to the Jets and Arizona, and threw another three last week in a blowout loss to Tennessee.
Despite the ups and downs, Dolphins fans have been encouraged by the play of their rookie quarterback - and his ability to rebound from those bad stretches.
"It takes a lot to rattle Tannehill," said Kevin Nogle of ThePhinsider.com. "He's very good at bouncing back from a poor play, a poor series, or a poor game. A day like Sunday has been the exception that proves the rule this year."
In games that Tannehill has not turned the football over this year (and finishes the game healthy), the Dolphins are 3-1, with the lone loss coming on the road to Andrew Luck and the Indianapolis Colts by three points. That's a noteworthy statistic going into tonight's game against Buffalo, considering that the Bills haven't forced a turnover defensively in their last three games.
"As Dolphins fans, we sometimes forget that Tannehill is a rookie," Nogle said. "We have to expect games like against the Titans, but he is a rookie and he is going to make rookie mistakes. That being said, I would not be surprised if he comes out throwing, and throwing well, Thursday night."
Philbin, meanwhile, has been at the forefront of the team's ability to exceed expectations in what most believed would be a re-building year in Miami. Sitting at 4-5, the Dolphins are just as much in the AFC playoff race as Buffalo is, putting them leagues ahead of the AFC cellar, where most prognosticators expected Miami to finish this year. Dolphins fans have been impressed with Philbin on game days.
"The Dolphins are typically good at making in game adjustments," Nogle said. "The last two weeks we have not seen those adjustments, but for the majority of the season, the Dolphins are really good at changing their game plan to exploit the weaknesses of their opponent."
If Dolphins fans see a weakness from the team's new coaching staff, it's not with Philbin - it's with offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who coached Tannehill in college while the two were at A&M.
"For all the credit Sherman's offense gets in getting Tannehill ready this season, it's also that offense that is killing Miami right now," Nogle said. "Sherman seems to have gone very conservative the past couple of weeks - to the point that the team seems to run three or four passing plays, and that's it. At times, as a fan sitting at home, you can make the play call that the Dolphins will run next. If Sherman does not change that, the rest of the year is going to be really, really long."
Miami has dominated the Bills in recent seasons, but they enter tonight's Week 11 contest looking very different at arguably the two most important positions within a football operation. How this duo performs tonight will go a long way toward determining whether or not the Bills can end their three-game losing streak and start living up to their own expectations.