At long last, the day fans of the Buffalo Bills have been waiting for is here. For the first time in 13 years, the Bills will head into their Week 17 contest with a chance to make the playoffs — and to end the 17-year playoff drought that has defined the organization since the turn of the century.
The Bills will be up against a Miami Dolphins team that they’ve defeated already this season, and it happened just a couple of weeks ago. Can they do the same thing with their whole season on the line?
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Dolphins at Hard Rock Stadium:
1) A statement game in every sense of the word
- Here we are. The Buffalo Bills, unlike every single one of their previous 15 regular season games, are in a true must-win situation against the Miami Dolphins. This is the ultimate test for this Bills test and impressive first-year head coach Sean McDermott. Even if things don’t work out for them in terms of the rest of the games that they need to go their way, coming out and playing incredibly well in a game like this with all the pressure on them will be a step forward regardless of an entrance into the postseason. It would just be another feather in the cap for this forward-stepping franchise with a new head coach and general manager, and one that is loaded with picks in the upcoming NFL Draft. And given all their warts — run defense, the inconsistency of the passing offense, a lack of a consistent pass rush — finishing the year at 9-7 is a remarkable feat. However, if they are a no-show in this spot… then that’s clearly an indication that they weren’t ready for the moment against an inferior team that they’ve already beaten this season. Furthermore, it will be something that McDermott must work to avoid in coming years when in similar situations. That said, I don’t expect that to happen. There’s something about this Bills team that makes me think that they aren’t going to be a prisoner of the moment and they’ll at the very least put up a big fight in their Week 17 matchup.
2) Will the Dolphins feature Drake more?
- One of the things that left me scratching my head after the Bills’ first matchup with the Dolphins was from the Miami perspective — and it’s also something that the Bills have done in certain spots this season as well. The Dolphins, for basically the entirety of the second and third quarters, decided to go away from the multi-talented and incredibly explosive Kenyan Drake just because they had fallen behind. It didn’t make much sense for a few different reasons — but more than anything, it’s because he was really successful in the first quarter, rushing for over 50 yards within the first 15 minutes. No matter the game script for the Dolphins, you’d have to expect Adam Gase to rectify that this time around — whether it be through the air or on the ground. The Bills have struggled to stop the run right up through the middle of the defense, and to limit receptions to opposing running backs, so as long as the Dolphins do what they didn’t with Drake last time around, Buffalo could have their hands full.
3) Tyrod’s Dolphin dominance
- On the flip side, unlike other opponents that he’s had problems with, Tyrod Taylor has usually had success against the Dolphins in his opportunities as the Bills quarterback. He’s been able to gain yardage consistently, and when things break down in the pocket, he’s been able to escape the pocket and make highlight-reel plays with his legs. You have to wonder, though, if the Dolphins will study what the New England Patriots did with Tyrod Taylor in both times that they played him. Seeing as how the secondary has been playing better for the Dolphins as of late, they could choose to go the Patriots route in putting an extra safety on the field to spy on Taylor, making sure that he doesn’t hurt them with a huge third-down pickup on the ground when things break down. In addition to LeSean McCoy, Taylor’s success to pick up yards and actually convert in red zone chances could be the difference between a close game, and one that the Bills win convincingly.
4) Can they shake the road woes?
- The Bills, for the first time since the drought began in the 2000 regular season, put together a 6-2 record at home — with some impressive victories along the way. However, the same cannot be said for how they’ve played on the road all season long. Their lone victories on the road were both unexpected wins, coming against both Atlanta and Kansas City — two playoff contending teams. However, their offense has disappeared on the road in spots — against the likes of the New York Jets, the Carolina Panthers, the Los Angeles Chargers, the Cincinnati Bengals, and of course last week against the New England Patriots. They’ve clearly been a different team on the road this season, which means that’s just another hurdle they have to clear to try and get themselves to the postseason — or just outside of it. And adding to it, one first they’ll try to accomplish is to get their first season sweep against a divisional opponent. These are just two more factors that the Bills will have to overcome on their way to try to end the playoff drought at 17 years.
5) Cutler or Fales?
- Last time around, we saw the Miami Dolphins and quarterback Jay Cutler turn the ball over a few different times on the way to the Bills’ victory. Now with a 6-9 record, the Dolphins and head coach Adam Gase are likely caught between the normal thinking of a playoff-less club in the final week of the season. Do they go for the victory and put everything they have into the game, or do they play younger players that they normally wouldn’t get an evaluation on how far they’ve come throughout the season? And according to Gase, this could even have an impact the most important position — at least to a small degree. According to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald, Gase is considering getting some time to the young quarterback and backup David Fales — especially before they head into an offseason wondering if he’s someone they can continue to develop as a potential backup to Ryan Tannehill. Fales was with Gase in Chicago, and they reconnected in Miami as he got the head coaching gig there. If Fales does play at all, that dramatically improves the Bills’ odds of winning the game — because you never know when Jay Cutler will have one of those days that remind you of how good he could have been had he ever found the consistency in the NFL — and we all know he’s surely capable of it every now and again.
OUT: CB Shareece Wright
QUESTIONABLE: WR Deonte Thompson, G Ryan Groy
DOUBTFUL: QB Matt Moore, T Laremy Tunsil, RB Damien Williams
QUESTIONABLE: TE MarQueis Gray, DE Charles Harris, LB Neville Hewitt, S T.J. McDonald, WR DeVante Parker, S Michael Thomas, CB Alterraun Verner, DE Cameron Wake
Prediction: Bills over Dolphins
- To me, the question isn’t about the Bills going down to Miami to win this game. I think they are going to be so fired up and completely focused on handling their business that they won’t let the moment get to them. That’s just the feeling I get from this team in talking with them day in and day out. This is a Dolphins team that they should beat, and as long as they don’t let Kenyan Drake dominate the game, they should be able to go into Hard Rock Stadium and leave with a victory — perhaps even in an impressive fashion, too. The question, though, is about whether or not they’ll get the help they need to put an end to the playoff drought that everyone that follows the team knows about, talks about, and discusses basically anytime this team is brought up. In that regard, I don’t know if I like their odds. The Baltimore Ravens have a 5-2 record at home, and their opponents — Cincinnati — is 2-5 on the road. And if they don’t get that game to go in their favor, it seems like an awfully tough challenge to get both the Tennessee Titans and the Los Angeles Chargers to lose a game that means everything to them at home. Between the hours of 4:25 and 8:00 pm, Bills fans are going to experience something they haven’t in a long, long time — the gripping pains of scoreboard watching in the final week of the season, with three likely-to-be-close games. However, I don’t think they’ll have to worry about the Bills being up for this game. They know the stakes, and I think we’re going to see a big effort from them on Sunday.