The Buffalo Bills didn’t make life easy for themselves to begin their chase to Super Bowl LVII. They nearly let a 17-point lead slip away to a Miami Dolphins team led by third-string rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson. A couple of key plays down the stretch allowed the Bills to defeat the visiting Dolphins, 34-31. The Bills are now moving on to the divisional round to take on the Cincinnati Bengals at Highmark Stadium.
A number of the biggest plays in the game were made by Bills rookies. Their playoff debuts did not disappoint, including one rookie who saved the team from a possible doomsday scenario loss to a foe within their own division. Let’s talk rookie performances from the Bills’ wild card win over the Dolphins.
Kaiir Elam, CB
You can’t say enough about how the young man handles adversity. Elam had played sparingly before veteran corner Dane Jackson went down with a knee injury midway through the game. The young first-rounder didn’t waste much time making his presence felt upon his entrance to the field. Elam was ready for the moment, and he took complete advantage of it.
Elam came in aggressive, playing with tenacity on his press technique and staying in phase with one of the NFL’s most dangerous receivers in Tyreek Hill. Elam was also involved as a run defender. One play that stands out is Elam’s ability to maneuver his way around a blocker on the perimeter. He then finished the job by cutting down running back Jeff Wilson before he could break it for anything more than a modest gain.
Of course, Elam’s coverage ability showed up in key situations. In a one-score game midway through the third quarter, the Bills hadn’t quite taken all of the momentum in the game back. Then Elam picked Thompson off on a 3rd & Long play. Elam’s length, athleticism, and zone awareness was on full display as he sank in his Cover 2 drop. That allowed him to bait the fellow rookie into an ill-advised throw, while Elam high-pointed the football and came down with it.
Elam also made the game-clinching pass break-up, as he dove with an outstretched arm on on a fourth-down pass intended for tight end Mike Gesicki. Elam stayed in phase perfectly as Thompson broke the pocket to create on the fly.
The first-round rookie always comes up big on the biggest stages. It definitely feels like the Bills will need him again down the stretch at one point or another.
James Cook, RB
Cook didn’t have his most productive game of the season, but he did score a rushing touchdown from 13 yards out on a play where it appeared quarterback Josh Allen made a read to give it to the second-rounder. He was able to turn the corner on an opposing linebacker and sprint into the end zone midway through the first quarter. Cook will continue to be a bit of an X-factor as the Bills move forward in the playoffs.
Terrel Bernard, LB
Bernard had yet another special teams tackle this week. He’s coming into his own on the kickoff unit in recent weeks. That’s a good sign for a former third-round pick who’s looking to stick on the roster in future seasons.
Khalil Shakir, WR
It was quite the two-play roller coaster for Shakir in this game. About midway through the game, Shakir couldn’t hang on to a bomb dropped in the bucket by Allen that would have been a huge play of at least 50 yards. Shakir simply never securely possessed it, and it fell to the turf. It was a back-breaking and shocking play for someone who has been known for his reliability to drop one of the easiest potential receptions you’ll see in the NFL.
Later, it was redemption time for Shakir, as he contorted for a huge gain on a 3rd & 1 late in a one-possession game. He turned and plucked the ball just as he had throughout the entirety of his career at Boise State. It was quite the makeup play to get back on Allen’s good side in a huge moment.
Shakir has been sneakily more involved lately, which is quite a sight for sore eyes among those who’ve registered frustration with the Bills’ offense this season.
Christian Benford, CB
Benford was a healthy inactive for this game, and has not factored back in with the team since coming off of injured reserve for the second time. Don’t expect to see much of the sixth-round pick for the rest of the season, barring some bad injury luck or detrimental struggles at corner. Benford’s impressive rookie campaign was derailed, to an extent, by injuries throughout the year.
Baylon Spector, LB
Spector has been a constant on the inactive list in recent weeks despite being healthy.