ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The Bills knew a three-game stretch against the AFC East could go a long way in defining the season. And with a third-straight victory, this time a 32-29 thriller over the Dolphins, the Bills are on the doorstep of their third straight divisional title.
“It took everything we had to pull this one out tonight,” coach Sean McDermott said of the matchup. Quarterback Josh Allen even mentioned a third matchup between the two teams could be in everyone’s future.
After a stagnant third quarter, the Bills charged forward in the fourth quarter to take the win as time expired. And with it, an 11-3 record, officially clinching a playoff spot, and holding a three-game division lead with only three to play.
What stood out from the Bills’ victory, and how does it project forward? Here are seven observations from the Bills’ win over the Dolphins:
1. Allen took over the fourth quarter
The last month has been a challenging one for the Bills’ offense. They’ve shown bits and pieces of life, but a disjointed effort defined many of their previous outings. That was until Allen took the field against the Dolphins. He was an unstoppable force in the first half, helping the Bills to average nearly eight yards per play over their three touchdown drives. They capitalized on all three of those drives with three touchdowns, putting the Dolphins on the back foot to begin the second half. But that’s when the adversity started to hit.
The Bills lost their best offensive lineman, center Mitch Morse, after a three-and-out to begin the second half. It took Allen and the Bills quite a while to find themselves, with four straight failed drives through the early fourth quarter. Down 26-21, they nearly threw away the game with a sack-fumble turnover that gave the Dolphins prime scoring position. The defense held on and forced a field goal to keep it a one-score game. And that’s when Allen effectively said, ‘Screw this, I’ll take it from here.’
‘That’s what makes an offense scary and dangerous’: Josh Allen rolls over Miami
As he’s done so many times throughout his career, Allen threw caution to the wind and became the entire Bills’ offense. With a minimal margin for error, Allen took the ball down eight points, accounted for 52 rushing yards, a five-yard touchdown toss to Dawson Knox, and used every eighth-of-an-inch of his arms to extend the ball just over the goal line for a two-point conversion. He suckered in defenders when they thought they had him pinned down and surprised them by beating them to the spot. He ran through contact and rejected most notions of protecting himself for that extra yard. But with abundant pass-blocking questions at that point of the game, Allen had no other choice. The quarterback took more of a backseat on the game-winning drive, but his impact was felt even without the stats of the previous drive. The Dolphins had to account for the threat of Allen taking off so much that they sacrificed their usually stout run-defending, allowing Devin Singletary to stack yards, first downs and time wasted off the clock.
This version of Allen has been dormant for the last several games. This version changes the entire landscape for the Bills and what they are capable of in the postseason, and it’s eerily reminiscent of how he and the Bills’ offense figured things out at the end of last season. Allen bailed out the defense, the game-altering injuries and the lost turnover battle to deliver an MVP-level performance. And if the Bills get this version of Allen for the rest of the season and in the playoffs, they’ll have every opportunity to call themselves Super Bowl champions come February.
2. This jarring Diggs statistic shouts his importance
Allen will forever be the most important component to the Bills’ title hopes, but Stefon Diggs is a not-so-distant second. The team has had to deal with inconsistency in their offensive skill players all season, but Diggs has remained the constant. It’s not even about the catches and yards, either. It’s about clutch moments on later downs and the attention he draws when not directly involved. It’s game-plan altering to both the Bills and the opponent. And as one metric from the Dolphins game shows, the Bills just weren’t the same team when Diggs had to take a breather.
In the NBA, a way some of the most valuable players across the league get measured is in their on-off splits. The premise is simple. How well does the team perform with the player in the game, and how much do they suffer without them? Projecting it to football stats, the disparity of Diggs’ on-off splits in yards per play is jarring. When Diggs was on the field, the Bills gained 432 yards and averaged an outstanding 7.2 yards per play. Diggs played on all but 11 snaps for the Bills. On those 11 plays, the Bills gained only 11 yards — a horrible average of one yard per play. Without Diggs, the Bills don’t have anyone other than Allen who strikes fear into the opponent. So, while the Bills have several key players they would like to stay healthy through the rest of the championship push, the Dolphins game shows Diggs is on the short list of who they can’t afford to lose.
Even with Cole Beasley back on the team and getting 11 snaps in the game, the Bills still found plenty of time for Khalil Shakir. The rookie receiver wound up with 21 snaps, which was well behind Isaiah McKenzie’s 46, but still a legitimate workload considering Beasley’s presence. But Shakir’s presence on the field might be a tell to opponents moving forward. If it felt like the Bills ran the ball a lot when Shakir was on the field, it’s because they did. They had a run rate of nearly 62 percent when the rookie receiver was in the game, running the ball on 13 of his 21 total snaps. When Shakir wasn’t on the field, the Bills passed it on 67 percent of those snaps.
The Shakir usage could go one of two ways in future games. First, their upcoming opponents will likely be at a higher alert of a run play when Shakir is in the lineup, making the Bills a bit more predictable through their personnel usage. McDermott made sure to commend offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey for how often they mixed in running plays. As we’ve learned about McDermott, those subtle comments are rooted in his desire to possess a better threat to run. It could be the start of similar game plans in future games. They must like Shakir as a blocker for how often they ran when he was in the game. But it’s also an opportunity for the Bills to flip those tendencies, pass out of personnel groupings with Shakir at a majority rate and catch the defense napping. It’s part of the game within the game as opponents scout tendencies from one week to the next.
4. Morse suffers a concussion, what it means to the interior OL
The Bills stayed primarily healthy against the Dolphins, but their lone injury was the most important player on their offensive line. Center Mitch Morse, who has easily been their best offensive lineman this season, left the game in the third quarter with a concussion. The injury is a concern for the Bills for several reasons. For one, Morse has a long history of concussions throughout his career, which is scary for both the player and team in his potential availability. If Morse’s injury costs him any time, it means the most-neglected part of the team’s roster will now have a bright spotlight on it until the center can return. The offensive line depth is easily the worst depth on the Bills’ roster, and regardless of the player they put in the lineup, they have struggled significantly.
Injury Update: Mitch Morse has been ruled out (concussion). https://t.co/8Shu62w62s
— Buffalo Bills PR (@BuffaloBillsPR) December 18, 2022
The Bills were already without starting right guard Ryan Bates coming into the contest, and losing Morse forced two pieces of their sub-par depth into the lineup. It certainly took a while for Allen and the Bills to cope with the constant pressure in that environment. Without Morse and Bates, it left the Bills with Greg Van Roten at center and David Quessenberry — an offensive tackle — at right guard. Then mixed with left guard Rodger Saffold and right tackle Spencer Brown, who have both not lived up to expectations this season, the Bills could have a potential offensive line crisis on their hands.
However, there are a couple of reasons for optimism. The Bills didn’t put Bates on injured reserve with his injury, meaning they likely expect his return before too long. Bates would likely slot in at center if Morse is unavailable to play. The other piece to the puzzle is Ike Boettger, a player they love and have trusted enough to be an every-week starter in the past. The Bills must activate Boettger by Monday, but they’ve been quite pleased with his practices since they opened his 21-day practice window. If Bates is at center for Morse, Boettger could step right into the starting lineup at right guard. Although he’s not a game-changer at guard, the Bills know they are getting a certain level of consistency from Boettger every week. Boettger could even factor into the starting lineup even when Morse and Bates are both available, but they might not have to force the issue due to injury. All eyes will be on the offensive line during practices this week.
For the second week in a row, the Bills used Tre’Davious White as a way to execute the rest of their defensive game plan. Just as they did with the Jets’ Garrett Wilson, they had White travel with a receiver almost every snap — but it wasn’t the one you might expect. White followed second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle wherever he went in the formation, leaving the explosive Tyreek Hill against the other boundary cornerback. The approach was an excellent one in theory. With White as their top cornerback, if he could handle Waddle on one-on-one opportunities, they could use a team approach on Hill and shade a safety over to his side. Rather than letting Hill, a consistent thorn in their side over the year, beat them, they trusted White to hold Waddle in check.
The trouble was not in the theory, but in the execution. White had a few great reps that were a reminder of the player he was before the injury, but there were also plenty of times Waddle beat him for a reception and even more times when the Dolphins failed to take advantage of Waddle beating White on a route. White had a difficult time transferring his weight and running with Waddle and was just a tick too slow in reacting with the route. Waddle also turned around White a pair of times deep down the field that the Bills got away with throughout the game. White was also quite fortunate the referees didn’t pay much attention to the matchup because at least four times, White was beaten on a route and blatantly grabbed Waddle’s jersey to propel him toward the receiver.
It’s a difficult situation because White is clearly their best cornerback, but he isn’t the same player he was before the injury — at least not yet. That return to form will likely take a lot more time on task and in-game reps. However, teams are going to see some of White’s difficulties and won’t be as wary of testing him as they have been in the past. White’s development through the rest of the season will be an important component to the defense reaching its potential.
6. It’s time to go full Kaiir Elam
After weeks on the bench, the Bills finally gave first-round rookie Kaiir Elam another chance on defense. Rather than entrusting the struggling Dane Jackson with 100 percent of snaps again, the Bills employed their two-series-on, two-series-off approach to begin the game. Elam entered the game on the Bills’ third defensive series, and despite one tough rep tackling, he showed far more promise as a pass defender than Jackson has shown over the last two months. Elam was competitive on defended passes and nearly came away with a late-game interception. Even without the turnover, Elam forced a third-and-12 and helped the Bills’ offense get back on the field for their game-winning drive.
Compared to Jackson, Elam’s performance should encourage the Bills to give the rookie an every-snap look against the Bears next weekend. There was enough there to justify a more significant role, and the Bills may have tipped their hand on their final defensive series. They had followed the two-on, two-off approach through the first nine series. If they had continued to follow it, Jackson would have been on the field for the tenth and final defensive series. But it wasn’t Jackson on the field with the game on the line. It was Elam, an important test the rookie likely needed to pass to help the team feel comfortable with a more significant role. The Dolphins game was a huge step for Elam, and it might be the one they point to in turning around his rookie season.
7. Damar Hamlin’s tackling issues continue
Since second-year safety Damar Hamlin took over the starting role for the injured Micah Hyde, we’ve seen a bit of a negative tendency surface. Hamlin has made several great reads in run defending, takes good angles and puts himself in a position to get a stop. But Hamlin’s tackling was a legitimate issue on film against the Jets. The Bills had the Jets bottled up for the most part, but those missed opportunities allowed the Jets to stay on the field and extend drives. That same tackling issue was an even more significant focal point against the Dolphins. There’s not much the Bills can do about it at this point because Hamlin is the best of their options to start with Jordan Poyer, so they’ll hope the tackling gets better. But some of Hamlin’s struggles show that safety will be necessary in the offseason to find a long-term starting option.
Bills MVP: QB Josh Allen – Allen accounted for a casual 381 out of 446 total yards for the Bills and all four touchdowns. He carried the team in the fourth quarter even when it seemed they would lose.
Bills LVP: CB/S Cam Lewis – The Bills got a key stop in the third quarter to hold their two-point advantage, only for Lewis to take a bad roughing the kicker penalty on the ensuing punt. The Dolphins took the chance and capitalized with a touchdown to take the lead. It was perhaps the Bills’ lowest point of the game.
Up Next: The 11-3 Bills will take the uniquely game to Saturday game schedule and prepare for a road game against the 3-10 Bears on Christmas Eve.
The game was certainly in doubt near the end of things. But rather than allowing the Dolphins to crawl closer to a division title, the Bills watched their MVP-level quarterback return to form and shut the door emphatically on their rival. And it also kept the Bills atop the AFC standings, only three wins away from clinching both a first-round bye and home-field advantage through the conference postseason. The way the Bills, and most appropriately Allen, responded on offense after a month-plus of disjointed efforts had a similar quality to their awakening in Tampa Bay late last season. The Bills were a dynamic offense, multi-faceted in moving the ball with the ground game and through the air, and Allen prominently led the way. If this is the start of things to come, the Bills might be getting back on track when it’s most important.
We’ve seen the Bills’ defense lead the way recently, but the teams they defeated in the previous four games are not what they should expect in the postseason. Those teams, the Browns, Lions, Patriots and Jets, don’t have the type of offenses that will force both the Bills’ offense and defense into their best game. The Dolphins are that caliber of team the Bills are more likely to see deep in the postseason, boasting an explosive offense and an overall talented roster. They are much closer to the Chiefs and Bengals mold than those other fringe playoff squads. But it all comes back to Allen. If Saturday night was a sign he has morphed back into his playoff form from last year, it truly opens up everything for the Bills. This Allen, home-field advantage and a first-round bye is a potential recipe for a ticket to the Super Bowl in February.
(Photo: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)