The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins meet this evening to decide the AFC East. This is exactly what the NFL wanted when it decided to position important divisional games at the end of the season. The Bills-Dolphins rivalry feels reborn, akin to those stories many of you heard about your father’s Buffalo-Miami rivalry. But to Dolphins fans, the rivalry might still feel a little bit lopsided in recent seasons, at least since quarterback Josh Allen entered the division.
Miami sits atop the AFC East entering the final week of the regular season. Hot on their 11-5 heels are the 10-6 Bills, winners of four straight. The Dolphins have been hit by a troubling amount of injuries, some to key players just last week in the closing minutes of a blowout loss — one they had no chance winning.
That was Miami’s worst defeat since Week 4 against the Buffalo Bills. Interestingly, Buffalo hasn’t put together a similarly complete performance since these two team met. Does that portend something similar in Week 18? The Dolphins and Bills, while largely the same in many key areas, are far different teams than either were in Week 4. A very large portion of that is due to injury for both franchises, but schemes also evolve on a weekly basis. So what’s up with the current Miami Dolphins?
Once again I had the pleasure of speaking with Kevin Nogle, Managing Editor of The Phinsider. We covered a wide array of topics, from quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, to the wide receiver tandem of Jaylen Waddle and Tyreek Hill, their health, and key injuries elsewhere - as well touching on those players tasked with filling in for injured teammates. Plus, Kevin weighs in with how he believes the team will respond following their loss last week, whether there’s reason to “fear” the reported number of Bills Mafia set to attend the game, and he also gives us a little insight into tailgating Dolphins style, and the better-kept secrets for out of towners to dive into.
1. Tua Tagovailoa has had a fantastic season, and it’s great to see him get through a campaign healthy, by and large. Are there any concerns about his game from fans and insiders? Has he improved as an off-script QB, able to succeed when reads to Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle prove dangerous?
Off-script is probably the biggest issue - and it is not so much his first read not being there, but his first read not being there and a year of dealing with an offensive line that has been a question mark. The line has been solid most of the time, but with all of the injuries and movement of players around the line all season, Tagovailoa starts to get happy feet if he cannot get the ball out of his hand immediately and he does not see an immediate escape route from the pressure. It is definitely the area of his game that needs to see improvement - but the offensive line also needs to see improvement to help him grow.
Tagovailoa’s game has improved and he deserves the Pro Bowl selection he received this year, but he probably is not a finished product yet. Growth of his game when things are imperfect will take him from a borderline MVP candidate into a realistic option for the award each year.
2. Speaking of Waddle. Hill gets all the press, and he seemed destined for his 2k promise until injury crept in. But is Waddle perhaps the ace in the hole for Miami’s offense? I look at what happened to them last week with Hill and without Waddle, and am left wondering if it’s actually Waddle who ties it all together — or at minimum if they require each other to fully dominate defenses.
I think you are right when you mention they need each other. When both players are healthy and on the field, teams cannot solely focus on Hill because Waddle is also such a threat. Safeties have to make choices and Miami can create so many different looks, motions, and routes with both of them that they alone can create confusion. With just one of them, the choice on who to double team gets taken away, and Miami’s offense loses a key piece of their attack.
That said, both Hill and Waddle have been dealing with injuries over the past few weeks. Hill has an ankle injury - likely a high ankle sprain but that has never been confirmed. When he is not at practice, he has been in a walking book, just to try to limit the possibility of aggravating the injury.
Waddle also has an ankle injury and he is questionable for the game. He was unable to play last week. If I had to guess, I think the Dolphins may keep him on the sideline for this week, giving him another week to rehab before the playoffs - but I think Waddle will try to push it to be out there.
I do think Hills is going to look to have a big day, one to prove he is healthy and ready for the playoffs, two to shake off two non-Hill-like performances over the last two weeks, and three to avenge the loss to the Bills in Week 4. But, if Miami does not have both Hill and Waddle, you are right, they may not be able to dominate like they normally can.
3. Injuries. I get that they’re often burdensome to discuss. I’ve spent thousands of words in similar spaces to this discussing the alarming number of Bills injuries. Like Buffalo, Miami is in a world of hurt thanks to them. However, the timing is terrible. What losses do you believe will play a key role in shaping the remainder of the team’s season — and how confident are you in those players tasked with stepping in to fill their shoes?
The offensive line injuries are rough, but they have been going on all year. The talk around the Dolphins all season has been on their explosive offense, but Miami’s defense has been really good after a slow start to the year, and the injuries there may be even harder to overcome than the offensive line’s. Losing Jaelan Phillips to an Achilles tear on Black Friday - that MetLife Stadium turf is ridiculous — was a major setback for the defense. Now add in the loss of Bradley Chubb to an ACL tear last week, and that is a lot of pass rush production suddenly not on the field for the Dolphins. Andrew Van Ginkel, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Melvin Ingram are going to have to step up. I would not be surprised to see Miami use inside linebacker Jerome Baker, who is returning from IR for this game, and safety Brandon Jones, who really likes to blitz, in more pass-rushing situations as well.
Then there is Xavien Howard. He has been ruled out with a foot injury, and that could be devastating for the Miami defense.Vic Fangio’s system is designed to keep cornerbacks on their assigned sides of the field,. no matter where the receivers line up. When you have Jalen Ramsey and Howard on either side of the defense, that can work really well. When you only have one, it can be rough. We saw that in Week 4, when Miami only had Howard and not Ramsey, and Stefon Digs went crazy. This week, it will be Ramsey without Howard. Will Fangio let Ramsey shadow Diggs? Will Gabe Davis then feast on Eli Apple or Kader Kohou?
And, of course, this all ignores James Cook being able to carve space in the middle of the field while the Dolphins are trying to figure out how to rush - and contain - Josh Allen.1
4. Admittedly, I didn’t see last week’s Dolphins-Ravens game. I did watch it on replay and was shocked how out of hand things became relatively late. The Dolphins were playing sound football early, and kept the score tight for a while. When an NFL team puts a 50 burger on the scoreboard, it often leads to one of two results the next week. How do you think the team will respond to last week’s thrashing?
This is where Hard Knocks has been amazing this year. We will get a chance on Tuesday to see exactly how the team reacted in the facilities throughout the week, and how they have focused on the Bills. Miami has been pretty good about being able to respond after adversity this year, but that Ravens game was a complete beatdown. As soon as the Dolphins lost their rhythm, Baltimore pounced and Miami could not come up with an answer.
I think the Dolphins respond well this week. They know what the Bills did to them earlier this year. They know the recent history of this rivalry - if you can call it that right now. And they know what is on the line. The Dolphins are a different team at home than they are on the road, using their motions and timing much more effectively when they are not battling crowd noise. That should (a) help them look more like themselves this weekend and (b) give them even more motivation to try to lock up home playoff games.
5. Currently, DraftKings Sportsbook has the Bills as 2.5-point favorites on the road. In their last two games, Buffalo needed to mount a comeback to beat two teams very much out of playoff contention. Do the odds, the line, and the general vibe from Vegas surprise you — is it possible bettors are basing too much off of last week’s Dolphins loss, and now their injury report? Is there any reason to “fear” the staggering number of Bills Mafia who’ve traveled south for this game — and the absurd fact that this game hasn’t yet (as of writing) sold out?
I really am not concerned about the “Mafia Takeover” that is all over the media right now. Great, a bunch of Bills fans have traveled down to Miami. This is Miami, where everyone retires so most games feature a large number of opposing fans. The stadium had a ton of Cowboys fans in it two weeks ago. The “MetLife Takeover” Dolfans NYC hosts every year for the Jets game in New York was in response to the large number of Jets fans that are in Miami every year - because they have all retired down in Florida and go to the game.
That is not to say the Bills fans are not traveling well. It is just something that I think Dolphins fans know is a norm for games. Most opposing teams have a good number of fans in Florida who can get to the game.
As for the spread, I was surprised when it opened at just 1.5 points. I thought the reasons you gave, Miami’s performance against the Ravens and the injuries, along with the winning streak the Bills are on right now, would have made this somewhere around a five- or seven-point spread. Maybe that is just my years of being disappointed down the stretch coming out, but the Bills look much more like the three-time reigning AFC East champions and a team that can make a deep run than they did in Week 4, and we know how that turned out.
That all said, I think Miami shows up in this game, it becomes an offensive shootout, and it may come down to who has the ball last. I will choose that to be the Dolphins.
BONUS Q. Tailgating at Hark Rock Stadium. What makes a Dolphins tailgate awesome? If you partake, what’s ritual for your home game spread, etc.? Also, what’s the best kept secret visitors to the area should know about?
Sadly, it has been years since I joined the tailgate parties around Hard Rock Stadium. Over the last few years, any game I attended, I was working in the press box and did not get down to the tailgates. This year, I went as a fan, but did not make it over there either. I will tell you, tailgating around Hard Rock Stadium is amazing. Going back to the opposing fans comment from earlier, it really is a giant party where everyone is welcome. As long as there is respect — trash talking is fine, but fun trash talk — everyone gets along. The Orange parking lots are the place to go for the best tailgating.
Now, that said, Hard Rock Stadium parking is a little crazy right now. The Miami Open tennis tournament moved to Hard Rock Stadium a few years ago, and it ate up some of the parking lots as tennis courts were added. Then the F1 track was introduced, and a little more of the parking was lost. Parking sells out before the stadium does and it is a little harder for everyone to set up their tailgate routine.
There are a ton of things to do at the stadium before the gates open, if you are not a tailgating type. They have games, displays, picture backgrounds, etc. Just walking around the stadium perimeter can be a lot of fun, especially if you have kids.
Miami is obviously Miami and there are plenty of things to do. Going to check out the Seminole Hard Rock Casino is always an option. And of course, the beach is right there.
My thanks as always to Kevin Nogle for what’s a great exchange each and every time! To read my responses, head over to The Phinsider for the companion article linked here (when available) (and on the Buffalo Rumblings home page).
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