The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are set to square off for Super Wild Card Weekend in a rubber match for AFC East supremacy. The stakes couldn’t be higher for both teams, with a chance to continue on to the divisional round next weekend on the road to Super Bowl LVII.
For Buffalo, Sunday’s game at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, NY represents a chance to put the field of teams on notice that preseason hype wasn’t misguided. For Miami, this game represents an opportunity to prove that the AFC East conversation doesn’t begin and end with the Bills.
But make no mistake: this week, the Dolphins have a whale-sized task in front of them. With 17 players listed on the injury report, Miami could struggle to field a complete offense. The Bills have endured similar misfortune for much of the season but now, the Dolphins’ dismay, Buffalo’s roster appears as healthy and complete as it has been in weeks. But beyond the injury concerns, Miami will face a Bills team seemingly fueled by otherworldly motivation to win it all for Damar Hamlin.
I had the pleasure of once again chatting with Kevin Nogle, Managing Editor at the Phinsider ahead of this weekend’s playoff game. During our prior chat leading up to the Week 15 showdown, I relented in asking one question that I lead with this time. I figured I had already asked too many questions then and it would be better served waiting until the playoffs — which I saw as a given for both teams.
We then discuss the very serious injury situation for Tua Tagovailoa, how Miami’s offense might look different with rookie seventh-round quarterback Skylar Thompson behind center, and what’s up with head coach Mike McDaniel’s continued reticince to run the ball more in obvious and adventageous situations. We close chatting about the huge spread for this week’s game — where Kevin weighs in with his thoughts on how the Dolphins could play spoiler for both parlays and Bills Mafia.
1. I’d like to ask you to consider the following for a moment, because I’ve waited weeks to ask the question under what I envisioned would be much different circumstances. Suppose the Dolphins don’t have a MASH unit injury front. With a fully healthy roster of preferred starters, what, if anything, would keep Miami from winning it all this season — what is their greatest weakness?
Honestly, probably the Bills. I would love Miami’s playoff chances with a healthy Tua Tagovailoa under center and with the offense running at full capacity. If you could give me the September heat in Miami, it would be even better, but we will not go there... Miami’s biggest weakness is stopping a running quarterback, and Josh Allen seems to be pretty decent when he decides to run the ball. If Miami were to stop Allen, the good news is, Patrick Mahomes and a healthy Lamar Jackson are not running threats, so the Dolphins would not have to worry about that at all.
This offseason, Miami is going to have to get creative with their salary-cap situation. They do not have the draft picks needed to restock with younger players. Whatever they do, finding a middle-of-the-field linebacker who can be a spy to make sure quarterbacks like Allen can be slowed down is a priority.
That was a lot of focus on the defense and what Miami needs to do to be better there, but on offense, it is not all perfect either. Miami’s offense is explosive, and when you have Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle it is going to be explosive. But, as we discussed before the Week 15 game, the San Francisco 49ers and Los Angeles Chargers showed there is a way to slow — or stop — Miami’s attack. Clogging up the middle of the field with linebackers who are staying home and not attacking the line of scrimmage takes away the quick slants and in-routes that Miami uses to get the ball into Hill and Waddle’s hands. The team made some adjustments, particularly turning more to the running game to bring the linebackers back toward the line of scrimmage, but then the injury to Tagovailoa changed the offense.
Long way of saying I would love to see the Dolphins at full strength in the playoffs and I do think they would be a force. I do not know what Sunday will look like, but we are at least getting to see the Dolphins in the playoffs for the first time since 2016.
2. Sadly, Tua Tagovailoa has endured what feels like a career’s-worth of traumatic brain injuries this season and, unfortunately, the news doesn’t sound encouraging on his progression at this point. If Miami wins on Sunday, how do you feel about his chances to play again this postseason — and failing that, do you believe he plays in 2023 and beyond?
I do think he comes back for 2023. I think they work this offseason to change some of his equipment, like working on a new helmet, as well as probably some work on how to get sacked and fall. Things like that. Could something like a Q-collar be used to add another level of protection? It seems like they will work on everything possible this offseason to better protect him. It does not feel like he has any plans to walk away, and at 24 years old, and playing at such a high level this year, I feel like he will do everything he can to be back next year. I know I would feel like I need to prove that I can do it, and I can play at that level for an entire season. I would assume an NFL player feels the same way.
That said, we do have examples of players like Andrew Luck walking away in their prime. Could Tagovailoa do that? Absolutely, but it just does not feel like he is on that trajectory right now. Maybe talking to his family, getting opinions from doctors, and potentially even talking to players like Luck, changes things this offseason, but right now I would bet on him being back next year.
Will he be back for a divisional game or the AFC Championship or the Super Bowl? I feel like that is trending toward no. He will be cleared at some point, and maybe another week, two weeks, or a month are enough to get him back, up to 100 percent, and fully back into the game plan. If Miami were to win this weekend, there will definitely be questions about Tagovailoa’s availability for next week. Concussions are so nebulous and there is just no way to know for sure what will happen or how long it will take for the brain to heal.
I know there has been a lot of talk about the Dolphins not allowing him to play or the NFL stepping in and preventing him from playing, but I do not know if those are realistic. If he is cleared by doctors — and from what we are learning, it would take at least three doctors to independently clear him to play — it seems strange to think the NFL then would just decide that a medically cleared player is not allowed to play.
My guess is that Tagovailoa does not return until 2023. My fandom is going to hope Miami wins this weekend and that Tagovailoa is cleared for next week. My humanity is going to only want to see Tagovailoa make a full recovery and get healthy.
3. How might Miami’s offense look different with Skylar Thompson (or maybe Teddy Bridgewater) directing an offense predicated on big plays to wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jalen Waddle?
I think we are going to see more reliance on the ground game. The good news is, the weather forecast seems to be fairly mild for a Buffalo game in January. Unfortunately, Raheem Mostert broke his thumb last week and it does not appear like he will be available for this game. As we are talking, he has not been officially ruled out, but we are awaiting the final injury report still. The Dolphins’ offensive line is also severely banged up, which would not be as much of a concern with Tagovailoa because he has full control of the offense and often knows exactly where he is going with the ball pre-snap (that can cause other issues, but that is not the discussion here). Thompson needs more time to read and make a decision on where to go with the ball. Having an offensive line that is allowing quick pressure is not going to allow Thompson the time he might need.
In my head, Miami is going to turn to Jeff Wilson, Jr., and run the ball a lot. They are going to simplify the routes and the decision making of Thompson and they are going to look to get the ball into the hands of Waddle and Hill quickly. A lot of short passes with the hope of yards after the catch makes sense.
The Dolphins have to rely on the defense to somehow contain the Bills’ offense and keep the score low. That will give the offense a chance to find its rhythm and, hopefully, put some points on the board. This is a tough task this weekend.
4. When Miami last came to Buffalo, they had a monster day running the ball, and Tagovailoa regained some of his MVP swagger. Why then, if any reason has been given, did head coach Mike McDaniel shy away from the run in the red zone in what feels like a key misstep from an outsider’s point of view?
Like I said, I hope they rely on the run this week as well. I wish I knew why the offense seems to get away from running the ball. McDaniel’s background includes being a run-game coordinator. The San Francisco 49ers, McDaniel’s former team, credited him with their success on the ground. There is a reason why Mostert and Wilson, both former 49ers, are happy following McDaniel to Miami. They should be able to run the ball. The Dolphins finished the year seventh in terms of passing plays percentage called, with a little over 61 percent of the plays. And, that is down as Miami turned to the running game much more over the last three weeks of the year. The play calling seems to get fixated on Hill and Waddle sometimes, and the running game — as well as the possibility of using someone like tight end Mike Gesicki — goes out the window.
Early in the year, the Dolphins simply were a passing offense. As the year continued, especially after the trade deadline when Miami sent Chase Edmonds to Denver and acquired Wilson from San Francisco, they started running the ball more, but every game seems to have the same pattern. Get the running game started early, but then watch it disappear down the stretch. I wish I could explain why Miami shies away from the ground attack later in games or when they are in the red zone, but I cannot.
After the Week 15 game, McDaniel was asked if he felt like he got away from the running game a little. He explained the play calling, saying, “I mean you have to — in a game like that, you have to kind of stay ahead of what the defense is doing. I think when they adjust — we had to give them a reason to play single safety. I think they played four snaps of man the first time we played them. So you have a choice — you can either play scared, or you can try to you know continue doing what your offense is built to do and if they’re blitzing five-man pressures to stop the run, it’s going to get ugly. I was fine with the way the game went and I think all of our players would, if given the opportunity, the offensive line and the running backs believe in our receivers and quarterback, and you have to play to each other and take what the defense is getting giving you.”
I love McDaniel and how he has coached this team this year. This may have been a case of him outthinking himself. Hopefully the Dolphins can get the run established and stick with it this weekend.
5. The DraftKings Sportsbook line is bonkers this week. The Dolphins are currently 13.5-point undercetaceans, and some predict that number could rise before kickoff. What would you say everyone is overlooking that might work in Miami’s favor to best the line or even win?
That line is obviously a reflection of the Dolphins’ quarterback situation. After two games this year, the score between the Bills and Dolphins is 51-50, so the first two games were obviously much closer than a 13.5 line would suggest. I get it though. Miami is starting a seventh-round draft pick against what was basically the pre-season consensus Super Bowl pick. I am hoping two weeks as the starting quarterback has given the team time to really develop an offensive system around Thompson. But, it is not easy to switch an entire offense that is used to a left-handed quarterback to one that will execute with a righty at the helm. I think that is part of why you saw some missed or nearly missed handoffs last week and other little things that are just a slight-bit off. Hopefully they are better in sync this week.
I will never go into a game feeling like the Dolphins do not have a chance, because football is going to football. But, I also understand why this line is the way it is. It goes back to what I said earlier — the defense has to step up big time this weekend to slow down and contain the Bills’ offense as much as possible so the offense has a chance. The Dolphins’ defense is going to have to be aggressive and try to force takeaways. Now would be a great time for Xavien Howard to play like the Xavien Howard of the last few years. Christian Wilkins needs to dominate the line of scrimmage. Jaelan Phillips, Bradley Chubb, and Melvin Ingram have to (a) get pressure on Allen and (b) contain Allen when he wants to run. This is going to be on the defense to keep Miami in the game. If they can play up to their full potential, the Dolphins could keep this game closer than people think.
My thanks to Kevin Nogle for once again taking time to chat and providing such great content about the Dolphins. While things appear stacked against Miami, everyone knows divisional bouts are a different breed of football. Be sure to head over to The Phinsider to read my thoughts on this week’s game through Kevin’s five questions about the Bills.