The Buffalo Bills survived every punch a battered Miami Dolphins squad threw on Sunday, winning 34-31 during Super Wild Card Weekend of the 2023 NFL Playoffs. The Dolphins entered as heavy underdogs, but they gave the Bills everything they could handle and then some over the course of the game.
Miami’s defense played aggressive and loose, and while they allowed some big plays, they also forced some big turnovers. On the offensive side, the Dolphins struggled with Buffalo’s defense, but that made sense giventhat rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson started in place of Tua Tagovailoa. While Buffalo played a stout defensive game, Miami also left some potential big plays on the field.
Our five players to watch were a mixed bag on the week, but most of them played a big role in the game’s outcome. Here’s how our list of players performed on Sunday.
QB Josh Allen
Allen completed nine of his first 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown. Through three offensive possessions, the Bills held a 14-0 lead and, after a field goal by Tyler Bass put them up 17-0 early in the game, it looked like this one would be a runaway victory. However, Miami’s pressure defense eventually baited Allen into trying for knockout blows rather than settling for layups, and he made three critical turnovers that led to Miami holding a 24-20 lead early in the second half. Allen heaved an ill-advised, poorly placed ball to John Brown up the right sideline late in the first half, and Xavien Howard intercepted it, returning it to midfield to set up a Dolphins field goal. Then, a perfectly thrown Allen ball doinked off of Cole Beasley, leading to another interception, this time for Jevon Holland. That one set Miami up for a touchdown to tie the game at 17. Finally, Allen misdiagnosed a blitz and didn’t look to his hot read until it was too late, which led to a strip-sack that Zach Sieler returned five yards for a touchdown.
Those were the bad plays. The good was that Allen threw for 352 yards and three touchdowns, and it very well could have been five touchdowns. Dawson Knox had a touchdown overturned on replay after it appeared that the ground might have helped him secure the catch (even though it never moved in his hands when he hit the ground). Then, with just seven seconds remaining in the first half, Allen threw a dart to Stefon Diggs that the star wideout reeled in with one hand and his left foot in bounds. His right foot hit while he pulled the ball in, and it appeared to move just a touch as his left foot came down out of bounds. Skare and Brian thought it was the right call, so who am I to second-guess our rules guy and our boss... but man, it does seem hard to figure out what, exactly, a catch is anymore. Add in a Khalil Shakir drop that would have gone as a 50-yard gain, and we’re looking at Allen potentially having thrown for around 450 yards and five touchdowns had things gone slightly different. In any case, while it wasn’t the near-perfect day we’ve come to expect from Allen in the playoffs, it was far from a poor performance overall.
RB James Cook
When Cook rumbled for a 12-yard touchdown in the first quarter, I felt pretty confident that this prediction was going to show out this week. I even thought that Cook would see some targets in the passing game as the contest wore on. I felt this was especially true once Dolphins defensive coordinator Josh Boyer stopped calling the equivalent of a Madden-style, “Engage Eight” defense like he was in his dorm room on a Tuesday night, and switched to a more nuanced plan after the first quarter. However, while some other supporting folks (Shakir and Beasley combined for five catches, 86 yards, and a touchdown — the first of Beasley’s career in the postseason) stepped up in the passing game, neither of Buffalo’s top two running backs saw so much as a target in the game. Part of that was probably a counter to Boyer’s aggressiveness, as the Bills started using Devin Singletary more on third down as a pass protector. Still, slipping Cook out in the screen game could have helped to stem the tide of Miami’s vicious, athletic pass rush. Cook was the team’s leader in rushing attempts, carrying 12 times, but he was second to Singletary in rushing yards. Cook had 39, while Singletary had 48 on 10 carries.
C Mitch Morse
The pass protection wasn’t good against the New England Patriots in Week 18, and it wasn’t good against Miami this past weekend, either. Allen was sacked seven times and hit a total of 13 times. Morse was the first offensive lineman to jump to Allen’s defense in his latest battle against Christian Wilkins, who is quickly turning into this generation’s Bryan Cox as the Miami player Bills fans and players love to hate. Morse and Wilkins ended up in a tussle after Allen’s first interception. With another strong pass rush to contend with this week in the form of Cincinnati Bengals edge players Sam Hubbard and Trey Hendrickson, Buffalo’s O-Line is going to have to figure it out in a hurry.
DT DaQuan Jones
The big fella only had one tackle and one quarterback hit of his own in 49 defensive snaps, but it’s never what the defensive tackle’s stats are that tell the story of his worth. It’s what everyone else does around him, especially the linebackers, given Jones’ role as a one-tech tackle in the Bills’ defense. Tremaine Edmunds had perhaps the best day of his career, breaking up four passes and totaling five tackles on the day. Matt Milano was similarly electric, totaling a game-high 10 tackles, two tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, and two sacks. Ed Oliver also managed three tackles, three quarterback hits, and a sack playing next to Jones for much of the afternoon. If he can eat space in the same way he’s done all year in next week’s game against the Bengals, who suddenly have a very banged-up offensive line, that would be a tremendous boost for Buffalo’s defense.
CB Christian Benford
Well, No. 47 was inactive again, leaving Dane Jackson and Kaiir Elam as the duo of outside corners across from Tre’Davious White. White was excellent in the game, notching two tackles and two pass breakups, but it was Elam who ended up the biggest contributor of the group. Elam didn’t allow a completion as the closest man in coverage, breaking up two passes and intercepting one. The interception gave Buffalo a short field, which Buffalo converted into a six-yard touchdown pass to Beasley. The second pass break-up came on Miami’s final offensive play, as he dove to prevent tight end Mike Gesicki from converting a 4th & 6 right before the two-minute warning. Elam was injured on the play, but he was able to walk off under his own power. It could have been a cramp — I’m hoping it was a cramp — but whatever it is, if he’s healthy, he proved on Sunday that he needs to be the guy across from White, not Jackson. Elam played 62% of the snaps after Jackson injured his knee in the second quarter. We’ll have to see what the week holds in terms of who will be active on Sunday.