The Miami Dolphins were put in an awkward situation before their Sunday night showdown against the Buffalo Bills that functioned as the AFC East championship.
Because the long-eliminated Tennessee Titans spoiled the Jacksonville Jaguars’ season by beating them in the early window, thus handing the AFC’s final two playoff spots to the Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers, the Dolphins knew hours before their own game that a win would result in a third matchup against the Bills next week to open the postseason. That may not have been much of a reward, as Buffalo had already handily defeated Miami once this season and has resumed looking like one of the NFL’s best teams over the last month following a midseason slump.
What unfolded Sunday night in Miami was even worse, though, as the Dolphins couldn’t prove they’re more than just Tyreek Hill while fumbling a golden opportunity to win their first division title since 2008.
Tua Tagovailoa’s late interception sealed a 21–14 victory for the Bills, who clinched their fourth consecutive AFC East title and swept the season series vs. Miami. Allen and the No. 2 Bills (11–6) will now host the No. 7 Steelers (10–7) for a wild-card matchup on Sunday.
As for the No. 6 Dolphins (11–6), they must travel to play the No. 3 Kansas City Chiefs (11–6) at Arrowhead Stadium on Saturday night. The Dolphins lost 21–14 to the Chiefs in Germany during Week 9, one of many chances they’ve squandered to prove they can beat true postseason contenders. Miami has a 1–5 record against fellow playoff teams, with no wins against any in their conference. After entering Week 14 with a three-game lead on Buffalo, Miami now has to settle for a wild-card berth and a date with the defending Super Bowl champions.
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel might have had a moment in which he debated how much he should show their divisional rivals Sunday night knowing that they could meet again on the same field for the wild-card round. If he did, it should have only lasted a few seconds because clinching the AFC East and the No. 2 seed was the priority—and it’s probably too late for the Dolphins to reinvent themselves, anyways.
The Dolphins stayed true to themselves as an all-or-nothing team, and in the process baited the Bills into being who they keep trying not to be—a team that relies heavily on Josh Allen. The Dolphins were electric for stretches in the first half and the Bills made costly mistakes, but it still wasn’t enough for Miami to end its 16-year drought without a division title.
It must be mentally deflating for the Dolphins knowing that the Bills had three turnovers and played on their terms at home and they still couldn’t beat their AFC East rivals. They lost similarly to the Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens earlier this season.
On the bright side, the Dolphins at least kept it close with the Chiefs, and perhaps Hill will deliver a special performance for his first game in Kansas City since being traded to Miami nearly two years ago. At this point, all the Dolphins could do is just be themselves—a team that relies heavily on Hill. They have no other options, especially with the injuries continuing to pile up. Edge rushers Andrew Van Ginkel and Cameron Goode exited early Sunday night with injuries; they were the replacements for the injured Bradley Chubb and Jaelan Phillips.
The Dolphins could have used their injured pass rushers on Allen’s 15-yard scramble on third-and-13 with about three minutes left in a one-score game. Allen did the heavy lifting again, and also managed to get Stefon Diggs involved for the first time in weeks. The Bills took their shots and minimized the damage from Allen’s three turnovers—that’s a testament to Sean McDermott’s defense, which has recovered from a wave of injuries earlier in the season. The Dolphins only generated 275 total yards and didn’t score in the second half after taking a 14–7 halftime lead.
The Bills got a lucky bounce after a tipped pass landed in the hands of wide receiver Trent Sherfield for a wild touchdown reception to make it 7–7 in the second quarter. And former All-Pro returner Deonte Harty provided the second-half spark, reeling off a 96-yard punt return touchdown to tie the game 14–14 early in the fourth quarter. Allen then led the go-ahead drive, which ended with a five-yard touchdown pass to tight end Dawson Knox and a seven-point advantage with 7:16 left in regulation.
Tagovailoa, the league’s passing yards leader, didn’t have many options outside of Hill because wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and running back Raheem Mostert were ruled out with injuries. They’ll be desperately needed for next week’s game in Kansas City.
The Dolphins did, however, get a boost from running backs De’Von Achane and Jeff Wilson Jr. to give Tagovailoa a balanced attack and prevent him from playing hero ball before the late interception.
Ironically, the Bills won the first meeting against the Dolphins by embracing a fast-paced game before pulling away for a 48–20 victory. But the problem with the Bills playing aggressively is it’s tended to lead to coin-flip results when it comes to wins and losses this season. The odds are probably worse when playing on the road. That approach also often leads to hero-ball from Allen, which often results in the sort of costly turnovers we saw Sunday night.
The Bills recovered from a 6–6 record because they leaned on running back James Cook, but Allen and Diggs rarely appeared comfortable in the new offensive approach with interim play-caller Joe Brady. Perhaps they should go back to feeding Cook and fully embrace a run-heavy approach for the matchup against the Steelers.
But that’s the benefit for the Bills. They know how to play and can win in multiple ways; offensively and defensively.
The Dolphins are all about Hill because Tagovailoa hasn’t stepped up during this wave of injuries for the Dolphins. They’ll likely need a special performance from Hill to continue their season past the wild-card round.