The Dolphins (9-8) travel to Buffalo (13-3) for a 1 p.m. Sunday wild-card round playoff game with the Bills at Highmark Stadium. Dolphins starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) has been ruled out of the franchise’s first postseason game since the 2016 season, and most likely rookie QB Skylar Thompson will start. Here are a few things to watch:
Dolphins’ QB play
With Thompson, the seventh-round pick from Kansas State likely to start, the key is keeping the Dolphins in the game until the fourth quarter. But Thompson might be looked upon to do that without left tackle Terron Armstead (toe/hip/pectoral/knee), right tackle Brandon Shell (knee/ankle) and left guard Liam Eichenberg (hand).
Last Sunday Thompson (60 of 105, 534 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions, 62.2 passer rating this season) did exactly what he needed to do — he didn’t make a costly mistake and kept the Dolphins in a competitive game into the fourth quarter and let others deliver the victory, which is exactly what happened with kicker Jason Sanders’ 50-yard field goal with 18 seconds left in the 11-6 win over the New York Jets. If Thompson can stay away from turnovers and make the routine plays, he should give his team a chance to win.
Dolphins’ OL performance
There are a number of reasons to watch this group. They, of course, must protect the quarterback. They also must blast open holes for the running game, which could be without running back Raheem Mostert (thumb). And they must do that while three-fifths of the starting unit could be sidelined due to injury.
The good thing for the Dolphins is Buffalo edge rusher Von Miller (8.0 sacks) has been sidelined for weeks and won’t play. But the Dolphins must watch Bills defensive end Greg Rousseau (8.0 sacks) and Pro Bowl linebacker Matt Milano, whose shove early in the season caused Tagovailoa’s head to hit the ground and started this whole concussion dilemma. The Dolphins need to play a ball-control, run-heavy game in Buffalo and the offensive line will be a huge key.
Stopping Josh Allen
Quarterback Josh Allen can hurt the Dolphins with his passing and running, which is what happened in their last meeting, a 32-29 Bills victory in Buffalo. Allen rushed for 77 yards, 50 on a 75-yard fourth-quarter drive that tied the game at 29. Allen has passed for 704 yards in two meetings against the Dolphins.
If Allen makes wide receiver Stefon Diggs a primary part of the offense, that presents trouble for the secondary and puts pressure on the pass rush. If Allen incorporates his run game as a primary part of the offense, the Dolphins must consider putting a spy on him and perhaps alter their philosophy to more of a read-and-react defense against the pass instead of an attacking one. This might be the most important matchup of the game for the Dolphins.
Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel must come up with something different than what he’s been doing recently because the passing game has been neutralized, for the most part. Opponents have dropped linebackers deeper into coverage, pressed wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle at the line of scrimmage to disrupt the timing of the passing game, and generally taken away those throws to the middle of the field that fueled the Dolphins early in the season.
McDaniel hasn’t had a response so far. These issues began during the West Coast trip and have lasted six weeks. Curiously, the Dolphins’ most successful offensive outing during this stretch has been at Buffalo, where they scored 29 points. By the way, the Dolphins have averaged 19.2 points in their past six games, scoring more than 21 points once.
Mass injuries are often a normal part of the playoffs because of the long NFL season, a season that’s now longer by one game. The Dolphins must harden their will to win and find a way to pull off the upset. We haven’t seen that version of the Dolphins since September, when they defeated Baltimore and Buffalo in back-to-back games.
Since then it’s been losses to playoff-caliber opponents and victories over non-playoff opponents. That trend must end. The Dolphins have lost lots of talent to injuries, and much of that talent won’t return for Sunday’s game, so the team mindset will be even more important.
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