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Bills 34, Dolphins 31: Five things we learned

Buffalo hits the divisional round for a third straight season

AFC Wild Card Playoffs - Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills lived to play another game. Heavy favorites coming into Super Wild Card Weekend, the Bills overcame several big mistakes of their own creation to knock off a depleted-but-competitive Miami Dolphins outfit, 34-31, to escape to the second round of the 2023 NFL playoffs.

It was a fun watch at times, and an aggravating one at many others. There was plenty to digest. In the end, the Bills improved to 4-0 at home in postseason games under head coach Sean McDermott, and they’ll have a chance to improve that record again next weekend when they host the Cincinnati Bengals in the divisional round.

Before we get to that, however, here are five things we learned from yesterday’s big win.

The Bills-Dolphins rivalry is officially back

These two teams do not like each other. They match up well against each other. They make big plays on one another. There is a ton of talent on both sides of the field. It feels a lot like future games between these two teams will go down to the wire far more often than not.

The aggregate score of the three Bills-Dolphins games this year was 85-81 in favor of Buffalo, who won two of them. None of the three games were decided by more than three points.

In the second quarter of yesterday’s game, Bills quarterback Josh Allen threw an interception. Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins found him immediately as cornerback Xavier Rhodes began his return. Words were exchanged, Allen began shoving Wilkins (who was allowed to return the favor after Allen engaged), and within seconds, Wilkins was being hauled to the ground by multiple Bills linemen, led by center Mitch Morse. Flags flew. No larger harm became of the play for either team, but it’s the latest — and best — example of Bills-Dolphins becoming something more than a twice-annual divisional meeting. This is a rivalry with teeth again.

Josh Allen needs to mitigate some risk

Allen did plenty of good in this game — 352 passing yards and three touchdowns, including the game-winning laser to Gabe Davis in the third quarter chief among them — and it was his aggressive downfield passing that kept Buffalo’s offense regular against a very aggressive and talented Dolphins defense.

It was his three turnovers, however, that yielded 18 points to the Dolphins and very much kept them in a game that Buffalo otherwise dominated offensively and defensively. The turnovers were not necessarily a result of reckless play; receiver John Brown could have expended more effort to break up the first interception, the second glanced off of Cole Beasley’s chest and into a Dolphins defender’s waiting hands, and on the strip-sack fumble recovery score to open up the third quarter, Miami sent a well-timed blitz that Allen simply didn’t see. These were all good plays by the Dolphins.

Allen’s play style is aggressive by default, so there will always be some risk involved when he’s under center. But between the turnovers — a consistent problem all season long — and one or two too many shot plays down the field, the Bills need to be seeking a happy medium between making big plays and taking what the defense gives them. Miami’s aggressive strategy yielded a lot of big plays for Buffalo, to be certain, but it also yielded too many in their own favor.

A big day for Gabe Davis

Much has been made about the production of Davis this season as the third-year pro has struggled through a long-lasting ankle injury and an occasionally severe case of the drops. That talk should abate for a week after Davis turned in his third consecutive mammoth postseason performance on Sunday.

Allen looked Davis’ way nine times yesterday, and Davis hauled in six of those balls for 113 yards and the game-deciding touchdown. He and fellow starting receiver Stefon Diggs combined for 227 receiving yards on the day, catching 13 total passes.

In his last three playoff games, Davis has combined for 16 receptions (on 22 targets) for 255 yards and six touchdowns. With opposing defenses continuing to key on Diggs, Davis will need to continue his stellar playoff play if the Bills hope to close the deal for the first time in franchise history.

Run game goes as Allen goes

Buffalo started this season with 15 straight games in which they logged 100-plus yards rushing. They did manage to squeak past the century mark against Miami, coming in with 107 yards as a team, but they are now on a two-game streak in which opponents have managed to contain Allen’s running, and thus minimize the team’s overall impact on the ground.

In the Bills’ Week 18 win over the New England Patriots, Allen was held to just 16 rushing yards on nine carries, and he was sacked twice. Yesterday against Miami, he had 20 rushing yards on four carries, and was sacked seven times, several of them for minimal losses as Dolphins defenders swarmed when he began to scramble. The 36 combined rushing yards in those games are the lowest two-game rushing total for Allen since the middle of the 2021 regular season.

Allen’s legs are a big part of what keeps Buffalo’s offense going. They have largely been rendered obsolete for the past two games, and that’s a trend worth noting as the level of competition starts to ratchet up.

Defense strong in favorable circumstances

The Bills knew that they’d be playing a Miami offense featuring its rookie third-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson, and a patchwork offensive line. The end results for Buffalo’s defense were therefore not unexpected; as a team, the Bills racked up four sacks, seven tackles for loss, 10 pass break-ups, 11 quarterback hits, and two interceptions while turning in a stellar performance overall.

The circumstances strongly favored Buffalo’s defense in this one, and they delivered the big plays necessary to render some of the Bills’ offensive mistakes moot. But old bugaboos still came up — namely, poor tackling in space and allowing 3rd & Long conversions. The Bills aren’t going to have the benefit of fortunate circumstances defensively going forward. Leslie Frazier’s unit did well on Sunday, but they’re going to need to up their game next week against Joe Burrow and his elite receiving crew.