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Bills 21, Dolphins 14: Five things we learned

Buffalo secured its fourth straight AFC East crown with a season sweep of the Dolphins

Buffalo Bills v Miami Dolphins Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills secured their fourth straight AFC East championship, as well as the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoff picture, with a 21-14 road win over the Miami Dolphins to close out the 2023 NFL regular season.

This was as intense a regular season game as we’ve seen in quite some time, with both of these rivals fighting through piles of injuries and big plays from their opponent to try to claim victory. In the end, Buffalo’s timely big plays and one too many injuries for Miami proved to be the difference, and now the Bills have the opportunity to play a playoff game at home after sitting at 6-6 just over a month ago.

There was plenty to chew on from this game. Here are five things we learned.

A huge special teams play swung momentum to Buffalo

As quarterback Josh Allen kneeled down for the final play of the game in victory formation, he handed the ball to the referee, turned toward his sideline, turned back around, asked the referee for the ball back, and then handed the ball to reserve wide receiver Deonte Harty.

It was a significant gesture, because without Harty, the Bills may not have found a way to claw back from a seven-point deficit to win.

Early in the fourth quarter, after Buffalo’s defense forced a second straight three and out to begin the second half (more on that shortly), Harty fielded a 58-yard Jake Bailey punt at his own four-yard line. Aided by the deep punt and two Dolphins coverage men running into each other, Harty found a gaping lane and was off to the races for a 96-yard return touchdown that tied the game at 14 with less than a quarter to play. It was the longest punt return in Bills franchise history.

The significance of the play can’t really be understated. Buffalo trailed 14-7 at halftime, and despite absolutely dominating the third quarter — they ran 21 plays to Miami’s four — a sack and an Allen fumble had prevented the team from putting any points on the board.

In a flash, before Allen and the offense could even get the ball back to try to right their wrongs, Harty stole the momentum permanently in Buffalo’s favor. It was a shocking, see-it-to-believe-it moment from an oft-maligned Bills special teams unit, and it was absolutely the play of the game, and the clear turning point. No. 11 needs a game ball.

Where did Miami’s running game go?

At halftime, the Dolphins had that aforementioned 14-7 lead, and had also accumulated 101 rushing yards and a De’Von Achane touchdown on 17 carries. If Bills fans lacked confidence in their team’s chances for victory at the break, it was because Achane and Jeff Wilson were running all over them.

The Dolphins ran the ball three times for seven yards in the second half.

Game script definitely got away from them a bit; Buffalo held the ball offensively for essentially the entire third quarter, so despite not scoring any points with those two possessions, Miami did not log a rushing attempt in the second half until a 2nd & 30 play at the start of the fourth quarter.

Even still, quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (17-of-27, 173 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions) did attempt six passes before then; those throws yielded four completions for 24 yards. Buffalo managed to hold the first three of those completions to nine total yards for a three-and-out on Miami’s first possession of the half, and after a Tyreek Hill 15-yard gain, penalties stymied the next drive.

Once the game was tied, Miami continued to try to let Tagovailoa win the game, rather than going back to their bread and butter for the first half. With the momentum firmly on Buffalo’s side and trailing 21-14, Tagovailoa was intercepted by backup safety Taylor Rapp to put a quick end to a short-lived comeback bid.

Looking past Allen’s turnovers

Allen had three more turnovers in this game, and while the second of those was essentially an arm punt on an ill-fated 4th & 2 play, the other two — an interception and a lost fumble — directly took points off the board for the Bills. (He also threw a ball short of the end zone at the end of the first half that led to the clock expiring without Bills points, which likely earned him an icy stare from Sean McDermott in the locker room.)

Beyond those few mistakes, however — which are now all but customary to the Allen Experience — No. 17 was his usual MVP-caliber self. He accounted for 426 total yards, 359 through the air and another 67 on the ground, and threw two touchdowns, including the game-winning toss to tight end Dawson Knox with less than eight minutes remaining.

He completed 30-of-38 passes, spreading the wealth between eight different receivers, but divvying the bulk of the work up to his big three of Stefon Diggs (7 for 87), Dalton Kincaid (7 for 84), and Khalil Shakir (6 for 105). He made plays with his legs, including but certainly not limited to a crucial 15-yard run on 3rd & 13 late in the fourth quarter to extend a drive and eliminate Miami’s remaining timeouts.

Despite the negative, this was an MVP-caliber effort from Allen. Don’t let anyone tell you differently.

A big moment for McDermott and his defense

The Dolphins have one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, with a talented play-caller running a cutting-edge system. Sure, they were missing multiple important players tonight, but the Bills’ defense has been missing multiple important players since October.

Buffalo stymied the Dolphins in Week 4, and in Week 18, they held Miami to just 281 total yards of offense. They repeatedly created negative plays, kept fighting when they did give up big plays of their own, and forced two turnovers to help even the playing field after Allen’s rough first quarter.

When a defense, and its play-caller, is able to do what it did to a high-powered offense twice, those players and that coach deserve a mountain of credit. McDermott had Mike McDaniel’s number once again, and while that may change again down the line, doing that twice is the single biggest reason that the Bills were able to sweep the Dolphins this season — and win a division title in the process.

Injury concerns heading into the playoffs

Buffalo secured a big win, but not without some loss, and there are a few names of significance that we’ll need to monitor as they prepare to host the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Wild Card round of the playoffs next Sunday at 1:00 p.m. EST.

Wide receiver Gabe Davis left the game in the second quarter with a knee injury and did not return. He was in street clothes on the sideline for the second half. Trent Sherfield appeared to take most of his reps (and caught Allen’s first touchdown of the game on a crazy ricochet), but Buffalo’s run game productivity did experience a dip with Davis out of the lineup. They’ll certainly be hoping he can recover quickly.

Cornerback Rasul Douglas also left the game early with a knee injury, and did not return. He remained in uniform for the duration of the game, but Dane Jackson closed out the contest on the field at boundary corner in his stead (and made some key plays, to his immense credit). Douglas has been Buffalo’s best defensive playmaker since the team acquired him via trade to replace the injured Tre’Davious White, and with a pair of talented Steelers receivers headed to town next weekend, Douglas’ status will be of particular interest.

Running back Ty Johnson was also quickly ruled out with a concussion after a blatant (and uncalled) helmet-to-helmet hit to close out the first half. Linebacker Tyrel Dodson left in the first half with a shoulder injury, and was replaced in the lineup by second-year linebacker Baylon Spector for the majority of the game. Both are role players of significance.

It’s never easy, and the Bills are no stranger to needing to work around injuries. But if any or all of these guys are able to play once the postseason begins, it would help the Bills retain more of their considerable momentum.

What else stood out to you from this big win, Bills fans?