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Bills vs. Dolphins a quest for AFC East supremacy in Week 18

Will the Bills win their fourth-straight AFC East title, or are the Dolphins ready to end their reign?

Miami Dolphins v Buffalo Bills Photo by Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are set to square off under the bright lights of Sunday Night Football. It wasn’t until but an hour before New Year’s Eve last weekend that NFL fans knew when this pivotal AFC East showdown would take place. Considering the stakes involved, it’s easy to understand why Bills-Dolphins was chosen as the premiere, primetime matchup to usher out the 2023 NFL regular season, and welcome in one of professional sports’ most compelling playoff tournaments.

As of publishing, the Bills are three-point road favorites with DraftKings Sportsbook. The O/U 49.5 point total is currently the largest of all Week 18 matchups, while the moneyline sits at Bills -162, Dolphins +136. Bettors believe this game has the potential to be a shootout. That’s possible given the pleasant Miami weather, made even better due to the night game’s lack of oppressive heat and sunshine.

For the Bills, it’s fairly simple: Win and they’re in — as the AFC’s two seed, no less. Losing in Miami doesn’t completely wipe away their playoff chances, so long as things earlier in the day go the way they need. If the Bills lose and both the Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers lose, they will end up as the six seed. Should Buffalo lose and only one between Pittsburgh and Jacksonville loses, the Bills claim the seven seed. However, the Buffalo Bills could find themselves out of the playoffs entirely with a loss and victories by both the the Steelers and Jaguars. Holding out hope that the right team(s) lose, win, or even tie is no way to enter the postseason.

The Dolphins, however, already have a playoff spot locked up — but their slotting is anything other than defined. So while some might view this as a must-win for the Bills due to the extreme swings at play, Miami very much wants to win the division and ride that momentum into “the dance.”

It won’t come easy, for either team. Even though Buffalo seems to have had South Beach’s number since quarterback Josh Allen arrived at One Bills Drive, divisional road games are as tough as it gets. The teams that faced off back in Week 4 are much different at this stage of the season. Gone from Buffalo’s side is offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, whose masterful play calling in their first meeting this season saw Josh Allen destroy the Dolphins’ defense en route to a perfect passer rating on a near-perfect (in every way) five-touchdown afternoon.

The Bills’ offense is now the responsibility of interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady, and the results have been favorable, though less dynamic through the air. If anything, there’s been a more concerted effort to establish the running game, which has allowed running back James Cook to shine. That was a welcome development by Bills Mafia, but the shine appears to be fading on it as a concept.

For too many weeks now, wide receiver Stefon Diggs seems to have disappeared a bit as a receiver. He’s still heavily targeted, and widely involved in so much of what happens on-field — but he’s just not producing like he was during the early part of the season. Yes, teams are doing their best to take Diggs out of the game, but it will be paramount for Brady, Allen, and Diggs to figure out the best way to more meaningfully incorporate Diggs back into the passing game.

Fortunately for the Bills, the major wave of injuries that took hold of the team like a plague beginning in Week 5 seems to have subsided a bit. There was a point in the season where Buffalo faced tough decisions trying to field a complete defense due to an alarming number of players missing extended time. To counter so many losses, the Bills brought in defensive tackle Linval Joseph and traded for cornerback Rasul Douglas. Joseph has proven a worthy addition on the defensive line, while Douglas has been instrumental to the team’s success late in the season. It’s worth considering the addition of Rasul Douglas as the most important move by general manager Brandon Beane this season. The seven-year NFL vet is a perfect fit for head coach Sean McDermott’s defensive system. Against the New England Patriots, Douglas picked off two passes, returning one 40 yards to the house for six. In eight games with the Bills, Douglas has four interceptions.

Thankfully for the Bills, many of those previously injured players have returned at this point. Chief among those is defensive tackle DaQuan Jones, who suffered a torn pectoral against the Jaguars in London that required surgery. Jones made his return in Week 17 at home versus the Patriots, playing over 50% of the defensive snaps. With Jones back in the fold, it should allow defensive tackle Ed Oliver to return to his demonstrative ways of making life miserable for offensive backfields.

Despite the shorter injury list, quarterback Josh Allen found his name included after suffering a stinger at the end of Week 16. In trying to secure victory, Allen ran for yards that led to his shoulder slamming into a defender. While on the ground, he began flexing his fingers. In follow-up interviews, Allen and others have downplayed the severity of the injury, noting that it was just a stinger and he’s expected to be fine to play. But the Bills have yet to say much about the finger injury Allen sustained, and it’s uncertain when it occurred. Despite these ailments, Allen remains a full participant in practice. In other positive news, safety Micah Hyde was listed as a limited participant while dealing with his third neck stinger of the season. Should Hyde be able to suit up, it will provide the defense with a huge boost in several ways. Hyde is a key leader on defense, and the team rallies around his play.

The Dolphins, on the other hand, are an absolute mess on the injury front, listing 18 players on the injury report for Wednesday. Their defense has lost the two best pass rushers in Jaelan Phillips and Bradley Chubb for the season, and head coach Mike McDaniel said this week that he doesn’t believe cornerback Xavien Howard’s foot injury will allow him to play. Six key players were listed as DNP, including offensive tackle Terron Armstead, running back Raheem Mostert, and wide receiver Jaylen Waddle. Oh, and quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was listed with a quad/left shoulder injury. When considering that wide receiver Tyreek Hill is also still nursing a foot injury from earlier in the season (and wearing a boot off the field), one has to wonder just how different the Dolphins’ offense could look this Sunday.

For Buffalo, their injuries have allowed others to gain valuable experience during the season, which included a late-blooming Tyrel Dodson at linebacker. But if the Bills hope to win Sunday night, it will require a complete effort by the offense — perhaps one not too dissimilar from what they rolled out in Week 4. During the team’s four-game win streak, the defense has played a large role in each game’s outcome. What’s been absent are the sort of dominating passing days most expect out of Josh Allen. Perhaps a bit of that’s due to concepts and schemes that Joe Brady has begun incorporating, in an effort to take a load off of Allen’s shoulders. But as so many longed to see Allen’s running element make a return, so to will his otherworldly ability as a passer.

For much of the season, talk about the Dolphins has centered on their inability to win games against teams with a winning record. They finally put some of those conversations to rest with their close home win over the Dallas Cowboys on Christmas Eve. But over the course of the last five games, Miami has a 2-3 record, and more flaws have appeared. While they’ve managed to blow certain teams out, they experienced a taste of their own medicine last weekend in losing 56-19 to the Baltimore Ravens.

This season, teams that find themselves on the wrong end of a blowout often rebound the following week. Will that prove true for Miami against Buffalo in Week 18? Will there be added incentive to enact revenge for their 48-20 loss up in Orchard Park, NY? Bills-Dolphins is one of the NFL’s best classic rivalries. With so much to play for, expect a playoff atmosphere in Hard Rock Stadium. Can the Bills win their fifth game in a row, and claim their fourth-consecutive AFC East title? Will Josh Allen and Tua Tagovailoa give national audiences a battle for the ages, or will both defenses clamp down and put points at a premium?

If you’re not headed to Buffalo South, then you’ll have to tune in to find out this Sunday, when kickoff happens at 8:20 p.m. EST on NBC.

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