The Buffalo Bills will win the AFC East with a win over the Miami dolphins this weekend. They also may find themselves out of the playoff picture entirely with a loss. The gravity of this week’s game certainly isn’t lost on its participants, as the Bills and Dolphins both know exactly what’s at stake.
Sure, Miami has already clinched a playoff spot, but they would clinch at least two home playoff games with a win this week (and, obviously, a win in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, too). Given that Miami is 7-1 at Hard Rock Stadium entering play this week, that’s clearly a big plus for the Dolphins’ Super Bowl hopes.
Buffalo needs a big week from its key players, and given the limiting nature of a “five players to watch” column, there’s no way I can name them all. However, here are five Bills who should have a big impact on this week’s outcome, for better or worse.
QB Josh Allen
There are three players who are blatantly obvious choices, and I’m going to talk about two of them in this piece. Allen can’t afford a slow start like he’s had the last two weeks. In the first halves of Buffalo’s last two games, Allen has completed just 14-of-31 passes for 170 yards, one touchdown, and one interception. In the second halves of those two games, he’s completed 16-of-20 passes for 236 yards and an interception.
A consistent, efficient Allen would be devastating to a Miami defense dealing with myriad injuries at all three levels. If he takes the easy money, keeps the Bills ahead of the sticks, and uses his legs when he has the chance, Buffalo should have more than enough offensively to win the game.
Another component is going to be Allen’s footwork, as it’s definitely worsened of late. He’s also been under more pressure in the last few games, so the line needs to protect him and interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady needs to design some quick-hitter looks to keep the Dolphins’ pass rush at bay.
Without Jaelen Phillips and Bradley Chubb, it’s a far less formidable rush, but the Dolphins still have plenty of talent up front. Allen’s ability to operate well within himself and take calculated risks when the opportunity comes will be a huge factor in the game.
WR Stefon Diggs
Rather than talk about Pro Bowl running back James Cook, who is obviously going to be a big part of the game plan this week, I think we need to focus on Buffalo’s top wideout. Diggs has been quiet of late, and much has been made about both his lack of production in recent weeks and his dwindling snap count.
Designing some easy looks for Diggs beyond the bubble screens would be tremendously helpful. Perhaps some of the deep-over shots, or even some mesh/crossing concepts, could give Diggs chances in the short-to-intermediate realm. Those would give him a chance at making some yards after the catch.
With top corner Xavien Howard looking unlikely to play this week, Diggs will be matched against either Jalen Ramsey, Eli Apple, or Kader Kohou. Two of those three matchups are mismatches that tilt heavily in Buffalo’s favor, while the one that isn’t (Diggs vs. Ramsey) is a matchup that Diggs has been able to exploit to his advantage multiple times in the last two times the two have met.
This can’t be a game where Diggs catches three passes for 24 yards. He needs some touches early, and he needs for Brady and the offense to scheme him the ball throughout the night.
WR Khalil Shakir
Now, it might sound like I want the Bills to force-feed Diggs, but that’s not what I’m saying. Rather, they need to do what any team in the NFL does — which is find a way to give the ball to its top playmaker in spite of the fact that the entire defense and everyone in the stadium knows that it’s what Buffalo wants to do.
If Miami pays plenty of extra attention to Diggs, someone is going to be open, and lately, Shakir has been money when he’s targeted. The second-year man has caught 33 of his 39 targets this season for 506 yards and two scores. In the last two games, Allen found Shakir on seven targets, and he caught all seven of them for 84 yards.
Shakir can be trusted to run great routes, to block on the outside, and to maintain his focus and composure in tough times of the game. If they leave him one-on-one with cornerback Kader Kohou in the slot, I like that matchup.
DT Ed Oliver
Someone has to pressure quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, and Buffalo’s defensive line has been outstanding all year long. If Oliver can continue to disrupt the middle of the pocket, it might force some poor throws. If Oliver can company can remain diligent in their rush lanes, it will keep Tagovailoa in the pocket, but it will also help them to maintain their gap integrity against a dangerous Miami rushing attack.
Oliver was a force again last week, notching his first career interception to go with a sack, two tackles, and two quarterback hits. Having defensive tackle DaQuan Jones back next to him was a huge help. Another huge week out of big Ed could seal the division for Buffalo.
S Jordan Poyer
This last spot could go so many directions, but I’m going with the versatile veteran given the number of roles he plays on defense for the Bills. Whether he’s acting as a blitzer, a deep-third player, a robber, or a dime linebacker, Poyer is the movable chess piece that head coach/defensive play-caller Sean McDermott has called upon for almost everything this year.
Whether he’s trying to chase down one of Miami’s speedy running backs, protecting against a deep ball to Jaylen Waddle, or coming in to defend against a crossing route from Tyreek Hill, Poyer is a key piece to the defense. His versatility and ability have helped McDermott to reinvent the defense in the wake of injuries, but his leadership on and off the field has also been irreplaceable.
If Buffalo’s pass rush can force an errant throw over the middle, I hope it’s Poyer to intercept it for his first INT of the season. It couldn’t come at a better time for the Bills.