The Buffalo Bills traveled to Miami to take on the Dolphins in a matchup with the division on the line. Thanks to Tennessee’s upset win over Jacksonville, the playoffs were already secure. Sunday night was about the division, home field advantage in the playoffs, and proving that the Bills are still the team to beat in the AFC East.
Turnovers, Turnovers, Turnovers
There were three interceptions thrown in the first quarter, quickly switching the game script to an unexpected defensive battle. On Miami’s opening drive, Tua Tagovailoa threw a bomb downfield intended for Tyreek Hill, who was double covered. Christian Benford came away with the INT, giving the Bills some early momentum.
Buffalo moved the ball well on their first drive, with Josh Allen completing passes to Stefon Diggs for five and six yard gains, before finding Dalton Kincaid down the sideline for a gain of 29. A 14 yard run by Cook moved the Bills into the red zone. After a missed defensive pass interference call on 2nd and Goal, Allen threw a dangerous pass into the endzone, which was intercepted by Eli Apple. Facing a blitz, Allen hoped Gabriel Davis would turn around as he threw the ball. Instead, Davis cut to the middle, leaving Apple uncontested for the easy pick. However, the cornerback’s decision to run out of the endzone cost Miami 17 yards of field position. Still, the turnover kept points off the board.
Completions of 18 and 19 yards quickly moved Miami away from their own endzone, and an 11 yard run by De’Von Achane allowed the Dolphins to cross midfield. Consecutive incompletions from Tagovailoa stalled the drive and forced a punt.
After the punt pinned Buffalo back at their 11 yard line, Allen’s first pass was to a wide open Diggs, who ran right past Jalen Ramsey on his deep route. However, Allen’s throw sailed over the head of Diggs, who would’ve been gone had the pass been five yards shorter. Khalil Shakir helped make up for it on the next play, turning a bubble screen into a 46 yard catch and run. Davis was able to take out two Miami defenders with one block, allowing the shifty Shakir to accelerate into open space down the sideline for the big gain.
Facing 4th and 2 four plays later, the Bills elected to go for it. As soon as Allen received the shotgun snap, it looked like he had a lane to run. Instead, he rolled to his right, where it looked like he had another lane to run down the sideline. Allen chucked a pass into the endzone towards Davis, who got tripped up on his own feet in the endzone. The ball was intercepted by DeShon Elliott for Allen’s second INT of the night.
Dolphins Unlock Run Game
Miami pounded the rock to start the second quarter, with Jeff Wilson rushing for gains of 10 and 13 on the drive, and Achane capping it off with a 25 yard touchdown. Earlier on the drive, facing 3rd and 14, Tagovailoa threw a window pass in between four defenders to Hill for a 23 yard gain and a first down. Just outside the redzone thanks to Wilson, Achane made a great juke in the open field against Jordan Poyer, and sped his way nearly untouched into the endzone.
The Bills answered quickly with a touchdown of their own. Allen found Dawson Knox down the sideline for a 17 yard gain, pump faking a short pass attempt to force the defender in coverage to free up space for the tight end. Allen backpedaled due to a blitz, and threw a pass over 45 yards downfield off his back foot. It landed right in the arms of Diggs for the 36 yard gain to set up 1st and Goal. On 2nd and Goal, Allen’s RPO pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage, with the ball nearly sailing out the back of the endzone. Former Dolphins receiver Trent Sherfield located the ball in the air, dragged his feet, and completed the catch for the improbable score.
Miami Steals Momentum
The Dolphins marched back down the field for their second touchdown of the night. On 3rd down, Tagovailoa connected with Cedrick Wilson for a 24 yard gain, who had created enough separation on Dane Jackson to make the catch. Three plays later, Tagovailoa fired a pass to the pile-on to an open Hill for the three yard score.
The Bills had 1:43 and a timeout to complete the first half of their double-dip opportunity. Allen found Diggs along the sideline for an 11 yard gain, then ran for 13 on 3rd and 5 to cross midfield. Diggs broke a tackle and burst inside for a gain of 17 to continue the drive. On 2nd and 10 from the 23, Allen found Cook in the endzone, but the running back saw the ball bounce off of his hands and fall incomplete. Luckily, Miami gifted the Bills a first down by playing extremely off coverage, inviting a quick pass to Deonte Harty who ran for 12 yards and stepped out of bounds.
1st and 10 from the 11, with 11 seconds left and no timeouts, Allen stepped up in the pocket and found an open Ty Johnson. The only problem was he wasn’t in the endzone, and although he looked open at the time of the throw, Jerome Baker quickly closed the distance and made an impressive (maybe illegal) hit on Johnson to prevent him from reaching over the goal line. With no timeouts left for Buffalo, the half would end on that play.
The Bills started the drive with a timeout, but Sean McDermott used it before their 3rd and 5 play around midfield that saw Allen run for 13. A questionable decision in the moment, a failed conversion would’ve given the ball back to Miami with about a minute left in the half. A timeout only ensured the clock would have plenty of time remaining. Although you’d like to see that ball go into the endzone, Allen gave his receiver a chance to make a play. The main reason Johnson couldn’t reach for the goal line was because Baker made helmet to helmet contact with him, giving Johnson a concussion that would prevent him from returning in the second half. While Baker will probably be fined for the hit, the Bills couldn’t get the flag to allow an untimed down.
Double Dip Disaster
The Bills came up short on both sides of the double dip opportunity. A quick QB sneak from Allen extended the drive on an early 3rd down, but a sack three plays later forced a Bills punt from their own 44.
A quick three and out for Miami gave the Bills another chance to tie the game. Allen found Sherfield over the middle for a gain of 12 to move the chains, but a holding call on the next play created 1st and 20. Allen scrambled for 13 to make up the penalty yardage, and found Kincaid on a shallow crossing route for 11 yards on 3rd and 3.
A 13 yard completion to Shakir over the middle moved Buffalo into the redzone, but Allen was strip sacked three plays later, and the ball was recovered by Christian Wilkins who caused the fumble. Wilkins made a great move around rookie guard O’Cyrus Torrence, then practically snatched the ball out of Allen’s hands as he tried to evade the rush. A 15 yard completion to Hill would end the third quarter, as the Dolphins entered the 4th up by seven with the ball.
Two penalties killed Miami’s next drive, a five yard false start and a 15 yard illegal block, forcing them to punt on 4th and 14. Jake Bailey out-kicked his coverage, allowing the speedy Harty to field the ball at the four with a chance to return. After making a man miss and bursting through a seam, Harty was suddenly in open field. With Poona Ford taking care of the punter at midfield, the former All Pro returner ran untouched into the endzone. Blocks from Siran Neal, Taylor Rapp, Reggie Gilliam, Dorian Williams, and Quintin Morris created the hole for Harty, who reached a top speed of 20.23 mph according to Next Gen Stats. The 96 yard return is the longest punt return in franchise history.
Allen Puts on His Cape
Buffalo’s defense forced another three and out, thanks to a Taron Johnson tackle for a loss and a Dane Jackson pass break up. Now, it was time to take the lead. On 3rd and 2, Allen powered up the middle to move the chains. He found Kincaid on a beautiful over the shoulder throw, as the rookie tight end had a mismatch on pass rusher Melvin Ingram. A 28 yard rainbow down the sideline to Shakir set up 1st and Goal. Allen found Knox leaking out of the formation, who reached across the goal line as he was tackled for the score. A “pick play” from Sherfield helped the tight end gain the initial separation needed to turn upfield.
Miami went three and out yet again, this time thanks to Buffalo’s amazing safety duo. On 3rd and 7, Jordan Poyer blitzed off the edge, forcing Tagovailoa to throw the ball quickly. Although the ball hit the hands of Hill, Micah Hyde knocked it loose as the receiver went to the ground, forcing the breakup and the punt.
Now, it was time to play the clock game. Starting with 6:14 to go, the Bills would run the ball effectively as they moved downfield to keep the clock running. Multiple times Allen or Leonard Fournette would slide in bounds as they ran near the sideline to ensure that the clock didn’t stop. A tush push on 3rd and 1 would be ruled short, but a “tush push launch” (as Cris Collinsworth called it) would extend the drive on the fourth down conversion.
Facing 3rd and 8, the Bills were charged with a costly delay of game penalty, inexcusable after Miami had just used a timeout. Now, at 3rd and 13, Allen made arguably the play of the game. With pressure coming up the middle, the QB was forced to quickly step up out of the pocket. He made the decision to tuck-it and run, eliminating the ability to pass as soon as he crossed the line of scrimmage. Allen shook off two tackle attempts and superman dove past the yellow line for the first down. Without the lunge, he would’ve been marked short of the line to gain, but that’s the Josh Allen experience. He’ll throw questionable interceptions, but also lay his body on the line to help his team win, and it paid off for them on this drive, as the clock continued to tick.
On 3rd and 10, Allen found Shakir over the middle for nine, but he was clearly a yard short of the first down. 4th and 1 after the two minute warning, the Bills could win the game with a first down. McDermott made the correct decision to go for it. However, their tush push was unfavorably spotted, and they were ruled short of the first down. With just under two minutes to go, and no timeouts, Miami had a chance to tie and even win the game with a two point conversion if they wanted to.
That’s a RAPP
Quick completions of seven and six yards moved the Dolphins to midfield, and a pass interference penalty set them up at Buffalo’s 40 yard line. After Tagovailoa’s first down attempt was nearly picked, his second down throw into double coverage would end the game. Taylor Rapp beat Chase Claypool to the sideline for the interception to win the game, win the division, and secure the #2 seed in the AFC.
What a rollercoaster of a game for the Bills, but honestly, it’s fitting considering how this season has gone. At one point, the Bills were 6–6, sitting in the 11 seed, with under a 20% chance to make the playoffs. After a crushing loss to the Eagles in overtime, Buffalo came out of the bye week with five straight wins, including at Kansas City, against Dallas, and at Miami. With some help from the Titans, beating the Dolphins on Monday Night Football and beating the Jaguars earlier on Sunday, the Bills managed to secure the #2 seed. According to @OptaSTATS, the Bills are the only team to be at or below .500 with five or fewer games remaining and yet still earn a top-2 seed.
To finish this season, a season in which the English language doesn’t have enough adjectives to fully describe, as the AFC East champions and the #2 seed is nothing short of incredible. The Bills battled through multiple tough injuries, losing Tre’Davious White, Matt Milano, and DaQuan Jones all in a span of two weeks. Zach Wilson and Mac Jones had wins on the Bills, and a 12th man on a missed field goal gifted Denver a win. Not to mention, the Bills had to transition from Ken Dorsey to Joe Brady at offensive coordinator, a more challenging adjustment than I would’ve anticipated given Brady’s stark difference in play design and play calling. Still, the Bills found a way. Reinforcements from Linval Joseph and especially Rasul Douglas may have saved the season. A breakout season for Terrel Bernard helped mitigate the loss of Milano, while an All Pro caliber season from Oliver helped mitigate the loss of Jones.
Meanwhile, Buffalo’s offensive line stayed completely healthy, starting the same five guys (Dion Dawkins, Connor McGovern, Mitch Morse, O’Cyrus Torrence, Spencer Brown) for all 17 games. Dalton Kincaid lived up to his first round pick status, breaking the single season franchise record for tight end receptions. Shakir took on a more meaningful role, capping off his 2023 campaign with a team high 105 yards in Miami. James Cook finished with over 1,500 total yards, while Diggs tallied his sixth straight 1,000 yard season. And Josh Allen, the Madden Cover Athlete, the non Pro Bowler, finished with a league leading 44 total touchdowns on the year.
In terms of this game, Buffalo’s defense came to play, holding the Dolphins to just 14 points and shutting them down entirely in the second half. The Bills forced four punts in the second half (including three three-and-outs) before Rapp’s game-ending turnover, the first time all season the Dolphins punted four straight times according to @JoshAllenStats. The injuries to Tyrel Dodson and Douglas are ones to monitor, but Baylon Spector and Dane Jackson stepped up big-time in their absences.
Offensive Player of the Game: Josh Allen
It was a roller coaster game for Allen, totaling three turnovers, while also scoring two touchdowns and amassing over 400 total yards. He finished 30 for 38 for 359 yards in the air, and 15 for 67 on the ground. It comes down to this; when the Bills needed him to make plays, he did. As far as I’m concerned, he’s your league MVP (unfortunately I have a feeling the voters will disagree with me).
Defensive “Player” of the Game: Sean McDermott
With such an amazing performance by the Bills, it’s hard to single out one player as the award winner here. Many guys made big plays in key moments, and executed the game plan perfectly to keep Miami in check. So this goes to McDermott, who prepared his defense to completely shut down the #1 ranked offense for an entire half, with the division on the line, without his best boundary corner and a missing linebacker. As someone who has criticized McDermott’s head coaching, especially this season, I can say without a doubt that he makes one hell of a defensive coordinator.
MVP: Brandon Beane
Sherfield touchdown, Harty punt return, Rapp game ending interception. What do they all have in common? Brandon Beane signed them this past offseason. Ed Oliver was consistently pressuring Tagovailoa up the middle, and has had a fantastic season overall, right after Beane gave him a heavily criticized extension in the offseason. Day 3 draft picks Shakir, Benford, Jackson, and Spector all stepped up in key moments, while rising stars in Kincaid and Bernard had great games as well. Brandon Beane has done a tremendous job assembling this roster, and it’s all seeming to come together at the perfect time.
What’s Next: Bills vs Steelers 1/14 Wild Card Round
It’s now ‘win or go home’ for the remainder of the year, as the Steelers will travel to Buffalo without defensive player of the year candidate TJ Watt. Although Mason Rudolph has done enough to get them into the playoffs, this was the most favorable matchup the Bills could draw in the first round, even if Watt was going to play. Take it one week at a time, and take care of business on Sunday.
Editor’s babble: This Bills team is a head trip. But should we expect anything different as Bills fans? On to Pittsburgh. We are grateful for Colin Richey’s contributions to our blog. You can also find Colin on Xwitter @whatthef00tball.