1. Primetime spotlight
It's clearly the biggest game of the Week 18 slate because it has the biggest stakes. So, the NFL aptly put Buffalo's regular season road finale at Miami in primetime knowing for the Bills it is very much an all-or-nothing game. Win and they clinch the AFC East title and the number two seed in the AFC playoffs. Lose and they have to hope that either Pittsburgh or Jacksonville lost earlier in the weekend to back into the playoffs as a six or seven seed.
But just how have the Bills and Dolphins fared in primetime this season?
The results for both teams have been a bit of a mixed bag. Buffalo is 3-3 this season in primetime, though they did win their last night game at Los Angeles in Week 16, 24-22.
Miami meanwhile is 2-5 in primetime games since 2022, with a 1-2 mark this season. They dropped a 28-27 decision at home to Tennessee in their last night game in Week 14.
The last game of the 2023 NFL regular season also features the NFL's passing yardage leader in Tua Tagovailoa and the league's touchdown leader in Josh Allen. Since 2022, Allen has a 96.7 passer rating in primetime games since 2022, the best mark in the league over that span.
Tagovailoa has an 86.6 passer rating in primetime over the last two seasons. His completion percentage in primetime games drops by almost 10 percent from day games (69.3 to 60.9) and his passing touchdowns per game drops by more than a touchdown on average (2.2 to 0.9) from non-primetime to primetime.
Allen has 300 or more passing yards and three or more passing touchdowns in each of his last three meetings with Miami, including his perfect passer rating Week 4 performance in a 48-20 victory this season. But he knows this time around figures to be a bit different.
"I've played well against them in the past, but it doesn't mean I'm going to play well against them this week, unless I prepare well and work hard in practice and get on the same page as receivers," said Allen. "And the five guys up front do their job and the receivers catch the ball, so it takes everybody to do that.
"They just played a game where they didn't play too well against a really good team so they're hungry, there's no doubt about that. Big game at home for them. Their crowd is going to be rocking. So, we're stepping into a very hostile and dangerous situation with that in terms of the AFC East on the line, so we've got to give everything that we've got."
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 this is just the third time two AFC East clubs played for the division title in the final week of the regular season. The most recent was a 1997 matchup between New England and Miami in a game won by the Patriots (17-3).
This is the second time the Bills and Dolphins are meeting in a game with these kinds of ramifications at the end of the season. The two clubs are responsible for the other such meeting at the end of the 1981 campaign. Buffalo lost at Miami 16-6, though both teams advanced to the playoffs.
2. Patience is a virtue
Miami's defense still ranks in the top 10 this season despite getting run off the field last week in Baltimore in a 56-19 defeat. They are stout against the run allowing fewer than 100 yards on the ground per game and are a respectable 12th against the pass and 11th in third down defense.
The problem for the Dolphins' defense is their health. After losing top pass rusher Jaelan Phillips back in Week 12 to a season-ending Achilles injury, they lost fellow pass rusher, Bradley Chubb, to a torn ACL last week. Chubb leads the team with 11 sacks, 22 QB hits, and six forced fumbles this season.
Add in that top corner, Xavien Howard, who leads the team with 12 pass breakups, is unlikely to play due to a foot injury last week, and starting ILB Jerome Baker is only now beginning his return from injured reserve, and the Dolphins are short some of their most dynamic playmakers.
That's why ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky, in his weekly appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ is expecting a conservative approach from Miami defensive coordinator, Vic Fangio, who hopes Josh Allen makes a few poor decisions with the football.
"Because of the lack of edge guys now with Phillips and Chubb out, this is a game where you know Josh, should be very comfortable in the pocket and patient," said Orlovsky. "Vic (Fangio) is going to take away the easy completions and he's going to force you to be patient. I promise everybody. Miami will play drop eight coverage in this game. They will rush three people, they will play drop eight coverage. The discipline to hand the football off will have to play its part."
Miami's defense has blitzed on just 22 percent of opposing quarterback drop backs, which ranks 28th in the league. Their lack of pass pressure in Week 17 was a major problem in defending against the Ravens.
Last week, with Bradley Chubb in the lineup, Baltimore QB Lamar Jackson had eight pass attempts in which he had between three and six seconds to throw against Miami's defense. He completed seven of those eight pass attempts for 197 yards and two touchdowns, averaging 24.6 yards per attempt and a perfect passer rating of 158.3.
3. Flood the middle
One area of the field, Buffalo may want to exploit is over the middle at the second level of the defense. Miami's linebackers have been victimized in coverage at times this season.
ILB David Long has given up a completion percentage of 64.4 percent in coverage, more than 12 yards per completion, a touchdown, and an opponent passer rating of 95.9. He also has a missed tackle rate of 11.3 percent.
His most recent running mate, Duke Riley has surrendered a 76.2 percent completion rate to opposing quarterbacks, almost 10 yards per completion (9.7), a touchdown and a 112.2 opponent passer rating. His missed tackle rate is up over 15 percent (15.2%).
Even starting ILB Jerome Baker, who just began practicing this week in his attempted return from I-R, has given up the highest completion rate of the three (83.7%) almost nine yards per completion (8.9) a touchdown, and an opponent passer rating of 86. His missed tackle rate is 11.5 percent.
Head coach Mike McDaniel indicated this week that reserve DBs Eli Apple and Nik Needham will be called upon to fill roles with Xavien Howard likely out and there could be welcomed opportunities in the pass game.
"Advantage Buffalo in this game," said ESPN NFL analyst, Dan Orlovsky. "I think offensively this has to be a (Dalton) Kincaid, and if I'm being honest, a (Khalil) Shakir game, that's my initial thought. Now if they finally move Stef (Diggs) to the inside and work Stef in the slot, it becomes Stef. But whoever's that slot receiver, Miami has shown Jalen Ramsey he's not going to shadow guys. Will that keep happening without Xavien Howard playing? We'll find out. So, it's got to be the middle of the field people in the pass game."
In each of the last three games that Shakir has been targeted, he has caught 100 percent of his targets making eight receptions for exactly 100 yards. Kincaid has a 79.5 percent catch rate on the season and has five receptions for 94 yards over his last two games.
Apple and Needham give up completions at a rate of 63.2 and 85.7 percent respectively.
4. Team sack record on the line
For most of the season, Buffalo has ranked in the top three in the league in sacks, and that remains the case heading into Week 18. The Bills rank third with 53 sacks on the season, which is tied with Miami. They're closing in on their own team sack record of 57 sacks, set back in 2013.
Buffalo comes into Sunday night's game hot with 11 sacks over their last three games. They will, however, be facing a formidable test. Even though Miami's offensive line is dealing with some injuries and has fielded 11 different starting combinations, they have given up the fewest quarterback hits in the league this season (56). Their 30 sacks allowed are also the fourth fewest in the NFL this year.
When it comes to emerging victorious against the Dolphins, the magic number for the Bills defense in terms of sacks would appear to be three. That's because Miami has a 1-5 record this season when Tagovailoa is sacked three or more times in a game.
The Bills sacked Tagovailoa four times in their first meeting with Miami in Week 4, a 48-20 victory.
Head coach Sean McDermott has worked hard with his defensive staff to constantly change the picture for the opposing quarterback with pressures and blitzes coming from different players and locations.
"I think learning how to blitz is part of the growth of a defense," McDermott said. "And maybe in years past, we weren't a heavy blitz team. And I think that's just a part of being a good defense is you have to know how to blitz and have the details that lead to the execution. I've been impressed with how our players have soaked that up in terms of learning that along the journey of the season so far."
Coupled with that pass rush is a keen awareness in coverage of defending quick pass attempts. Tagovailoa is one of the most successful quick pass throwers with a league-leading 15 touchdown passes and 2,666 yards on quick throws.
Fortunately for Buffalo their defense leads the NFL with nine interceptions on quick pass attempts by opposing quarterbacks.
5. Late season streaking
Over the last few seasons, the Bills have been able to stack wins better than any other club in the NFL come the tail end of the year. Buffalo has a league-best 18-2 record in December and January regular season games since 2020. Part of that total includes their current 13-game winning streak.
Putting a finger on why the Bills have been so successful down the stretch in seasons might be difficult, but this season there was added incentive by virtue of some missed opportunities earlier in the year that left them no choice but to get on a winning streak to get back into playoff contention.
"It's (been) playoff ball," said Dion Dawkins. "We play this game to play this late in the season. And I'm still talking about the regular season because we're still in it, but we play to have a chance to play past this week. When some teams are home and they're watching us and they're on vacation and like on their trips and stuff like that. We play for these moments. It's a different approach but we've been in this mode for a little while now so it's not like flip the switch. That switch flipped after the Eagles game and even during the Eagles game, but we're here."
During their 18-2 stretch of games in December and January, Buffalo's defense has also allowed the fewest points per game (17.9) while the offense has scored the most points per game (30.4).
Since 2018, the Bills are 6-1 specifically in Weeks 17 and 18. Their .857 winning percentage leads the NFL over that span.