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Bills 32, Dolphins 29: Revisiting five key Buffalo players to watch

A huge win puts Buffalo firmly in the AFC East driver’s seat

NFL: Miami Dolphins at Buffalo Bills Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bills took everything the Miami Dolphins could give them en route to their fifth straight win, a 32-29 thriller that puts them three full games clear of Miami in the race for the AFC East divisional title. If Buffalo wins one of their last three games, or Miami loses one of theirs, then the Bills will clinch their third consecutive AFC East title. That would be the second-longest streak of division wins in franchise history. They’ve won four straight divisional crowns twice — once from 1963-1966, and again from 1988-1991.

It took a big first half and a big comeback in the fourth quarter for Buffalo to avenge their September loss against Miami, but avenge it they did. It was mostly a one-man show this week on offense, but even the best need some help from their supporting cast. Our five players to watch this week played with varying results, but those that needed to step up did so in a big way.

Here’s how our five Bills to watch played on Saturday night.

QB Josh Allen

Allen was downright surgical in the first half, dissecting the Dolphins’ defense to the tune of 217 yards and three touchdowns in the first 30 minutes of play. He ran just three times in the half for 16 yards, and the Bills held a 21-13 lead. The touchdown passes were to one of the most unlikely trios of players in recent memory, as he hit tight end Quintin Morris for his first career touchdown to open the scoring for Buffalo, then hit running back Nyheim Hines for his first touchdown with Buffalo for the second score, and then ended the half by rifling a ridiculous pass to running back James Cook with no time on the clock. On that play, which started with eight seconds on the clock, I think most of us were thinking and/or saying the same thing: “No, no...throw it away...what are you doing...YES!” Allen just does alien things sometimes, and that play was another example of how he’s operating on a different level than 98% of the league.

The second half, though, was a struggle, as the same thing that has plagued the Bills far too often of late happened. There was a tremendous lull that encompassed the whole third quarter, where Buffalo’s offense was stuck in the mud. In that third period, Allen completed just 4-of-10 passes for 42 yards. He ran twice for 14 yards. To make matters worse, he was sacked and stripped on Buffalo’s first play of the fourth quarter, and things looked pretty bleak. The Dolphins kicked a field goal to go up 29-21 with just 11:56 to play. Then, Allen went into overdrive. On Buffalo’s penultimate drive, he rushed four times for 50 yards, and capped the drive off with a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox on third down. Then, on the two-point attempt, he played Superman, jumping over the pile and barely breaking the plane of the goal line before the ball was knocked away. On Buffalo’s game-winning drive, Allen marched the team from their own seven-yard line to Miami’s seven-yard line in 5:56. He completed 4-of-5 passes for 40 yards on that drive to finish his night 25-of-40 for 304 yards and four touchdowns, adding 10 carries for 77 yards in a MVP-caliber performance.

FB Reggie Gilliam

Well... that one was a bust. Gilliam played on just nine offensive snaps, seeing neither a target nor a carry on the night. The sloppy, snowy weather didn’t come to fruition until late in the game, and even though Buffalo ran it plenty on their final two drives in the snow, they did so mostly out of their “11” personnel grouping.

[Slot Receiver]

With three guys to play, it was hard to guess which one would see the lion’s share of the time. Well, it wasn’t actually that hard, as Isaiah McKenzie did see the most snaps there — as he should have. The surprise, perhaps, is that Khalil Shakir saw a slight uptick in his usage, appearing on over 20 total snaps for just the fourth time this season. He wasn’t targeted, however. Newly re-acquired veteran Cole Beasley played on 11 offensive snaps, and he caught his lone target for nine yards. Beasley was the starting slot receiver, but McKenzie played 56% of the snaps and saw five targets, catching two for 24 yards. But it was a pass on which he was interfered with that was his most important look, as it set the Bills up in close field goal range on their final drive. Rather than the slot guys stepping up to help Stefon Diggs (five catches, 60 yards), it was tight end Dawson Knox (six catches, 98 yards, TD) and Gabe Davis (four catches, 56 yards) who played big-time supporting roles.

CB Dane Jackson

Plenty of good news at CB2 for Buffalo. First, Jackson and rookie Kaiir Elam played a near-even split, as Jackson appeared on 53% of the snaps and Elam played on 47%. Second, Jackson wasn’t mercilessly exploited the way he’s been over the last few weeks. Actually, it was Tre’Davious White who was targeted often — he was beaten for two long gains (one each by Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, with the latter going for a touchdown), and he also managed three pass breakups. Elam, for his part, allowed just two catches in 18 coverage snaps for a total of 11 receiving yards. Sure, Jackson played fairly well given how poorly he’s played of late, but it was Elam’s night at corner. He should see more snaps moving forward. Jackson had three total tackles. Elam had two, including one for a loss, and a pass breakup.

S Jordan Poyer

Buffalo’s defense is much better with Poyer in it, and the team is much better when he’s active. Buffalo moved to 10-0 this year when Poyer plays, and he had another solid outing. Poyer had five tackles without a pass breakup. There were a few plays where they used Poyer as the “in the box safety” and Damar Hamlin as the “deep safety,” and Miami was able to exploit those situations more often than not. The play that comes to mind is the long touchdown pass from Tua Tagovailoa to Waddle on Miami’s first drive of the third quarter. Poyer was playing a “robber,” where he starts in the deep area but actually moves up to an intermediate zone, with Hamlin serving as the deep safety. Miami had the perfect offense called to beat the defense, and while it looked as if middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds was attempting to switch out of the play, I ultimately blame defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier for that one. It felt like Buffalo was trying to be a little cute in forcing Tagovailoa into some misreads, but he saw right through the wrinkles in safety placement. As long as Hamlin is his safety partner, it should be Poyer playing the deep role and Hamlin in the box, as the first-time starter has been abysmal in deep-field situations more often than not.