ORCHARD PARK — Following days of uncertainty surrounding the health of teammate Damar Hamlin, the Bills safety appears to be well on the road to recovery, as Hamlin was released from the hospital earlier this week. With their teammate back on his feet, Bills players and coaches have done their best to shift focus back to football as they prepare for a rivalry game with the Miami Dolphins in Sunday’s wild card matchup at Highmark Stadium.
The postseason game between the Dolphins and Bills will be the third meeting between the AFC East rivals this season, with Miami winning the first of two regular-season matchups, 21-19 in Week 3, and the Bills responding with a 32-29 win in Week 15.
“Here we are in Game 3,” said Bills head coach Sean McDermott. “What it comes down to is our focus and our level of execution. They’re a really good football team, well-coached, and they’ve got great team speed. It’s important that we prepare like we need to prepare.”
A bit of the excitement surrounding this week’s postseason matchup has dissipated with the news that Miami starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa will remain out with a concussion. Rookie seventh-round pick Skylar Thompson is set to start for the Dolphins, while veteran Teddy Bridgewater is dealing with a finger injury and will serve as Thompson’s backup. Miami is also dealing with numerous other injuries.
Although the Dolphins’ injury concerns have helped create one of the largest spreads in postseason history, with the Bills presently favored by 13.5 points, the environment inside the stadium on Sunday is sure to be electric. No matter what team the Dolphins put on the field, the Bills and their fan base’s tenacity will undoubtedly remain at a fever pitch as the hope remains, despite all the struggles the Bills have encountered this season, that the team’s trek continues into February.
Here are Five Takes for Sunday’s postseason matchup between Buffalo and Miami, which is scheduled for 1 p.m. and will be televised on CBS:
While the Dolphins are dealing with injuries at various positions, the Bills are as healthy as they’ve been for much of the year. Defensive tackle Jordan Phillips (shoulder) did not practice on Wednesday, Thursday or Friday, while wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie (hamstring) was limited on Wednesday before missing practice altogether on Thursday and Friday. Both players have been deemed questionable for Sunday’s game. Safety Jordan Poyer (knee/vet rest) missed practice Wednesday before being limited Thursday and practicing in full on Friday. Poyer has battled through various injuries throughout the season but is expected to play Sunday.
“He is so tough,“ said McDermott on Poyer. “I just have so much respect for who he is as a person and who he is as a player. Obviously, he brings a certain mentality to our defense, and it’s been great to have him out there.”
Bills safety Micah Hyde (neck), who returned to practice on Wednesday after previously being declared out for the season, will not play this week or next if the Bills are to advance, per McDermott.
The Dolphins are riddled with injuries entering the Wild Card round, most notably with Tagovailoa’s announced absence and starting left tackle Terron Armstead dealing with a slew of ailments. Armstead is listed as questionable with toe, pec, knee and hip injuries, while fellow offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg (hand) has been ruled out, and Brandon Shell (knee/ankle) and Kendall Lamm (ankle) are both questionable. Running back Raheem Mostert (thumb), the team’s leading rusher, has also been declared out for this week’s game.
Several other Dolphins players have been listed as questionable, including linebacker Bradley Chubb (ankle/hand), fullback Alec Ingold (thumb) and WR Cedrick Wilson Jr. (hip/groin).
THOMPSON’S TALL TASK
Thompson will work behind a banged-up offensive line on Sunday, making matters more challenging for the rookie QB, who is going up against a Sean McDermott and Leslie Frazier-led defense that has feasted on rookie quarterbacks in the past. Since 2017, McDermott and Frazier-led defenses have faced rookie QBs 12 times (regular season and playoffs) and have limited those QBs to seven touchdowns against 18 interceptions in those matchups. Earlier this season, the Bills held Steelers rookie QB Kenny Pickett without a touchdown while intercepting him once during a 38-3 destruction of Pittsburgh in Orchard Park.
Through four games in which he’s seen significant action, including two starts, Thompson has accumulated a 69.15 passer rating while completing 59 percent of his passes and throwing just one touchdown against three interceptions. He was sacked five times in those four games and has not proven to be a threat to use his legs for extra yardage in the running game. The rookie has yet to eclipse 170 passing yards in a game this season and finished Miami’s 11-6 win over the New York Jets last week 20-of-31 passing for 152 yards.
Despite his paltry numbers, McDermott has liked what he’s seen from the youngster.
“I think the tape that I’ve seen, I think he looks good, he really does,” said the Bills head coach. “They’ve done a good job with him, and he seems to have a good command of the offense and does a good job back there.”
After beginning the season with a couple of solid performances, including during a two-point win over Buffalo in Week 3, the Miami defense has fallen on hard times while allowing opposing teams to rack up the points. The Dolphins have allowed 23.5 points per game, which is the ninth-most of any team in the NFL, and before Miami ended its five-game losing streak with its slim win over the Jets, its defense had been putrid for five straight weeks. During their skid, the Dolphins allowed two 300-yard passers, including Allen, who went for 304 yards and four passing touchdowns in Week 15, when the Bills became the second consecutive team to gain over 400 yards against Miami, joining the Los Angeles Chargers, who did so in Week 14.
The Dolphins seemingly got their defense in check last week, albeit against an inferior quarterback in the Jets’ Zach Wilson. However, this week, facing Allen for the second time in five weeks, Miami could be in for a long afternoon, particularly if its pass rush cannot apply pressure on Allen within the pocket.
KEEPING ALLEN CLEAN
According to Pro Football Reference, the Dolphins’ defense blitzes at the third-highest rate in the league, dialing up extra pass rushers on 33.3 percent of the team’s defensive snaps during the regular season. While bringing extra rushers has produced middling results for the Dolphins in their ability to sack the quarterback, they have produced the fifth-highest hurry percentage in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference.
The last time these two teams met, Allen was sacked just twice and hit only six times. But, in the Dolphins’ win over Buffalo weeks earlier, Allen was sacked four times and hit 11 times. It seems the secret for Miami, or any team for that matter, to slow Allen and the Buffalo passing game is to apply pressure early and often, which for the Dolphins will likely mean cranking up the blitz more often than the Bills have seen against other opponents this season.
That means the Bills’ offensive line must be at its best to ensure its quarterback is protected, as Allen, like most other quarterbacks, does his best work when provided a clean pocket with which to work. Per Pro Football Focus, when provided a clean pocket this season, Allen’s completion percentage is a lofty 67.6%, as opposed to a subpar 52.2% when placed under pressure. When Allen is blitzed, his completion percentage drops to 56% from 66.3% when he isn’t blitzed.
Miami is equipped with several capable pass rushers, including LB Melvin Ingram, who sacked Allen twice in the Dolphins’ Week 3 win, and the team’s sack leader, LB Jaelan Phillips, who sacked Allen once in the two teams’ last meeting and has seven sacks on the year. Defensive tackle Christian Wilkins is also a force to be reckoned with from his defensive tackle position, as is Chubb, who the team acquired in a trade earlier this season.
“Wilkins, and honestly, like all those guys, Ingram, I love the kid. They’re all great,” said Bills starting LT Dion Dawkins. “Phillips, they’re all great athletes, and they’ve been doing a great job all year, and they turned it up.“
FULL STEAM AHEAD
After two close games against the Dolphins during the regular season, the Bills have been presented with a golden opportunity to roll through a banged-up division rival en route to a third straight Divisional Round berth. With more fearsome opponents coming down the road, it’s critical the Bills find their top gear and power full steam ahead into the next phase of the postseason.
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