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Pregame Rumblings: Bills vs. Dolphins, win or go home

Three keys to the game, our Bills-Dolphins pick, and the Buffalo Rumblings SGP presented by DraftKings

The 2023 NFL playoffs are here, and the Buffalo Bills play big-time hosts in Orchard Park, NY. Their first challenge is on Super Wild Card Weekend, as the Miami Dolphins come to town for the third matchup between the two teams this season.

All year, the team has expressed the desire to win the No. 1 seed, but with the Week 17 game cancellation after a scary injury to Damar Hamlin, the Bills had to settle for second. But there is a silver lining, as the AFC championship game would be played at a neutral site in Atlanta, GA should the Bills and the Kansas City Chiefs both make it.

Without looking ahead, this is a game between divisional opponents who should be very familiar with each other. The temperature will be around 27 degrees, with winds around four miles per hour. There will be a 2% chance of rain, which basically means no rain at all, with cloudy skies. This all means perfect football weather for a playoff game in Buffalo. The last times these teams faced off, it was similar weather until the fourth quarter, when it started to snow. There will be no snow this time, which should allow both teams not to overthink when it comes to protecting the ball due to the elements.

As far as injuries go, the Dolphins losing starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and running back Raheem Mostert represent major hurdles to their hopes of winning. They will need to put up points to win, and we haven’t seen much from rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson to make Dolphins fans confident that happens. Tagovailoa has missed the last two games with a concussion, and was not cleared for football activities in time for him to be activated for the wild card matchup. Teddy Bridgewater is listed as questionable, but Mike McDaniel said he will be active as the backup quarterback in the event that Thompson needs to come out. Losing Mostert hurts, but the team does have Jeff Wilson Jr., who is a very capable player.

The Bills have no players listed as out or doubtful headed into this game. Isaiah McKenzie and Jordan Phillips didn’t practice on Friday. Phillips potentially missing this game is huge when the Dolphins are likely planning to run the ball early and often. Back in Week 15, the Dolphins were able to put up a whopping 188 yards on the ground. Throughout the year, the Bills have had an elite rushing defense that ended the regular season ranked fifth in yards given up on the ground. McKenzie being out certainly could hurt the Bills, but the team did sign Cole Beasely to the active roster for the playoffs. Plus, they also called John Brown up to the roster again — who you’ll recalled caught a 42-yard touchdown last week from Josh Allen.

Here are my thoughts and things to look for during this game:

  1. Are Bills fans going to be treated to “Playoff Josh” again? For his career, Allen is 3-3 and has a 14-1 touchdown to interception ratio in the playoffs. He rarely turns the ball over, and seems to make his best plays when the pressure is high. He averages 286.3 pass yards per game and has a 106.6 passer rating for his career in the postseason. If that’s the version of Allen who shows up today at Highmark Stadium, the Dolphins should just have the plane ready to take off on Southwestern. I fully expect to see this type of performance from Allen and the offense. Over the last four weeks, I’ve mentioned noticing his throwing motion improve, and Allen’s made plays that only he and Patrick Mahomes are able to make on a more consistent basis. When his elbow was first injured, he wasn’t making those throws as often with success. Now, I don’t think there’s a question that he’s finally healthy after seeing him last week against the Patriots. The 40-plus-yard touchdown to Brown was nothing short of amazing, and the touchdown that he threw to Stefon Diggs traveled in the air over 60 yards before dropping in a bucket that wouldn’t allow the defender any chance to make a play on it. The last time we saw Allen in the playoffs, he walked off the field with the lead over the Chiefs, leaving just 13 seconds on the game clock. We all know what happened after that moment. But I believe the team is determined now to keep all of that in the past, and use the events over the last year to motivate them to reach their goal. Allen has had a phenomenal season. But with the injury and some untimely turnovers, he’s pushed himself outside of the MVP conversation. I see Super Bowl MVP in his future if he’s able to activate “Playoff Josh.”
  2. No Tagovailoa for the third straight week for the Dolphins — ruled out as of Wednesday after not being cleared to participate in football activities. Bridgewater dislocated his pinky on his throwing hand, but will be active as a backup in the event Thompson needs to sit. That’s where I’m nervous if I’m a Dolphins fan. Thompson was a phenomenal talent on the college level, but Buffalo’s defense isn’t your favorite college defense. The Bills ended the regular season fifth in passing yards given up per play. That doesn’t bode well for Miami, which will look to get the ball in Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle’s hands in order to have a chance to win the game. How will Buffalo’s defense match up against the Dolphins’ offense? Will they put eight in the box and force Thompson to beat them passing the ball? Or will they dare Miami to run the ball, even though they ran it well against them in the last meeting? Wilson is definitely a capable running back. But outside of the first matchup against the New York Jets, the Bills haven’t lost a game because they couldn’t stop the run. I don’t expect that to start now. Defensive coordinator/assistant head coach Leslie Frazier has been here before, and I don’t think he gets the credit he deserves when it comes to game planning against teams’ strengths and weaknesses. I expect them to force this game into Thompson’s hands. If he can’t generate points and the offense looks like it did against the Jets, this game is Buffalo’s for the taking.
  3. Time of possession. In a perfect world for Bills Mafia, Thompson won’t be able to move the ball well, and the Bills will force a ton of punts and have plenty of opportunities for offensive possessions. But we know this is the NFL, and that just doesn’t happen. If the Dolphins can run the ball with Wilson, it could give them a chance to win. In the Bills’ first Super Bowl against the New York Giants, the offense was on the sideline for most of the game, which was the clear game plan for Bill Parcells, Bill Belichick, and the Giants’ defense. Everyone knew how unstoppable the K-Gun offense was, and the Bills were so stuck on running it that they didn’t give Thurman Thomas the ball enough — even though he was carving up New York every time he touched the ball. But the point is, the Giants kept the offense on the sideline. That’s going to be key for the Dolphins and the Bills today. Which team has its offense out there the most, and which defense will be tired? Again, I see Buffalo dominating this game on both sides of the ball. Allen played well in both regular-season games against the Dolphins, even though the Bills were unable to win down in South Beach. But don’t ignore the running game and creativity of McDaniel — he can get Hill and Waddle involved with jet sweeps and other gadget plays to get the ball in their hands. If they can move the chains and get the ball to their playmakers, it might spell success.

I’m sure you can tell that I’m picking the Bills to win and cover the 13.5-point spread. I just think the moment is too big for the second-to-last quarterback taken in last April’s draft. I also can’t see Allen losing at home in the playoffs to a team that lost five of their last six games. Bills by a billion.

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