1 – From Tua to Thompson
Each of the first two times the Bills played the Dolphins this season Tua Tagovailoa started at quarterback and was productive. Over the two games he went 30-48 passing for 420 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Tagovailoa was sacked three times and had a passer rating of 111.5.
Now Buffalo must prepare for third-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson, who has made two starts for Miami this season and appeared in seven games. The seventh-round draft pick out of Kansas State has completed just over 57 percent of his passes for 534 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions.
Miami head coach Mike McDaniel has worked to create easy reads for the rookie signal caller to get the ball out of his hands quickly and into the hands of playmakers like Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
"I think the tape that I've seen, I think he looks good, he really does," said Bills head coach Sean McDermott of Thompson. "They've done a good job with him, and he seems to have good command of the offense and does a good job back there. We'll plan accordingly on that now that we have a feel for the quarterback there."
Still, there is no denying that Miami's offense hasn't be as explosive without Tagovailoa in the lineup. In games in which Tagovailoa was able to start and finish, the Dolphins averaged 24.4 points per game. In the four games without him Miami averaged eight fewer points per game (16.25) this season.
Having not played against Thompson there will be some additional preparation needed for the rookie quarterback.
"I think each time you play a team they're going to present different challenges," said Tremaine Edmunds in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live' this week. "Obviously, with a new quarterback it'll probably be a little bit different. So you've just got to prepare the best way you can. A lot of things go back to our fundamentals and making sure we execute at a high level."
2 – Points not a problem
The Bills finished the regular season ranked second in scoring averaging 28.4 points per game. Over their last three games Buffalo's scoring prowess is trending up. Counting their meeting with the Dolphins in Week 15, the Bills averaged 34 points per game over their final three outings, an increase of six points.
Offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey has worked to keep opposing defenses off balance and for the most part it has worked of late.
"You want to keep things fresh and make sure guys are excited about the plan," Dorsey said. "You have your wrinkles and things like that, but I really think just consistency of approach and consistency of your overall attitude as a coach and as a player is important going into this stretch of the postseason."
At the same time Dorsey knows facing a division opponent for the third time in one season requires some alterations to their approach.
"It might change what you're trying to do in terms of attacking a defense for a third time and just kind of going back and looking at some of the things that you did and trying to correct some of those things with either scheme or play call from a situational standpoint."
Josh Allen also finished last year's postseason on an absolute tear. In both of his playoff games last season, Allen recorded at least 300 passing yards and four touchdown passes. He can join Matt Ryan as the only players ever with at least 300 passing yards and three touchdown passes in three consecutive postseason games. He can also become the first player in NFL history with at least four touchdown passes in three consecutive playoff games.
Allen has also thrown multiple passing touchdowns in 10 straight games against the Dolphins. If he does it again this week, it will set a new NFL record against one team breaking a record held by Hall of Famer Dan Marino.
3 – Hardly healthy
The Dolphins were the far healthier team when they met the Bills the first time in Week 3. Buffalo was missing five starters on defense and one on offense. That was compounded by injuries the Bills sustained in the game. Fast forward to Wild Card Weekend and the shoe is on the other foot.
Miami is the team that has a number of players on their injury list. Starting QB Tua Tagovailoa has already been declared out for this game, but three starting offensive linemen did not practice on Wednesday or Thursday (Terron Armstead, Liam Eichenberg, Brandon Shell) along with starting running back Raheem Mostert, who suffered a broken thumb last week against the Jets.
"The Dolphins are not too enthusiastic. It's doubtful that Raheem Mostert will be able to play," said NFL writer for Outkick.com Armando Salguero, in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "If he does, they'll obviously feel better about their chances. But ball security is a big deal especially in the cold. It's a big ask. It's tough."
Mostert's replacement, Jeff Wilson also was limited in practice early in the week due to illness but was full go on Thursday. WR Jaylen Waddle was limited by an ankle injury and edge rusher Bradley Chubb was limited by ankle and hand injuries. Trying to return to play from injury are starting LT Terron Armstead and starting edge rusher Jaelen Phillips.
"He's progressing," said Miami head coach Mike McDaniel of Armstead. "Like most weeks, this week is no different. I expect him to be out there if he's capable. And if he's not, he'll make the best decision for the team. That's just kind of how he's built."
Dolphins' starting right tackle, Austin Jackson has been on injured reserve since Week 13. Miami signed free agent Eric Fisher to serve as a replacement, but he landed on injured reserve himself last week. And the new starter at right tackle, Brandon Shell, is considered a long shot to play with knee and ankle injuries. Even one of the new backup tackles Kendall Lamm missed Wednesday's practice with an ankle injury leaving that position in a complete state of flux.
4 – Red zone stoppers
On the surface it's readily known that the Bills' defense has been very strong defending the red zone this season. They finished second in the league in opponent touchdown efficiency at just under 45 percent (44.9%). What's more impressive however, is not only Buffalo's ability to force field goals in the red zone, which they have done 14 times this season, but their opponents have come away with nothing on 13 other red zone possessions.
The 13 goose eggs for their opponents in the red zone is the best mark in the league. Only Philadelphia and Washington, which each have 11 even come close to Buffalo.
Miami's red zone defense, which ranks 23rd in touchdown efficiency, has just four stops of their opponents where they came away with no points. But Josh Allen doesn't put much stock in stats, especially when you reach the postseason.
"We know it's going to be a dog fight. It's going to be 60 minutes," said Allen of the upcoming matchup with Miami. "We've got to do our job. We've got to execute. We've got to trust each other, take care of the football and just try to score points."
In their last meeting in Week 15, Buffalo went four for five in the red zone and it was critical in the last-second field goal victory.
Sports Illustrated Dolphins reporter Alain Poupart believe the struggles defensively in the red zone for Miami stem from two main issues.
"I look back at that Buffalo game when the Bills won again and again in the red zone against them and for me it was just that Josh Allen beat them," said Poupart in an appearance on ‘One Bills Live’ this week. "But the overall red zone issues are they haven't been able to generate a pass rush with their front four and they've had injuries in the secondary all year. Even Xavien Howard has played through injuries and that's been a problem because they can only cover for so long and their pass rush isn't helping them. So opponents are cashing in down there."
Miami was able to get a pair of red zone stops last week against Joe Flacco and the Jets heading into the postseason.
5 – Home field dominance
Under Sean McDermott, the Bills have demonstrated a strong home-field advantage in Orchard Park. Buffalo finished 7-1 this season at home, the second time in three seasons they posted seven home wins out of eight (2020).
The Bills are also perfect at home in the playoffs under McDermott posting a 3-0 record over the last two seasons. And when it comes to the Dolphins specifically, Buffalo is an unblemished 6-0 against Miami at home under McDermott.
"I'll start with our fan base," said McDermott of the challenges for road teams at Highmark Stadium. "I think that's where it really starts. And listen, outside of that, it's who plays the best. At the end of the day, that's who's going to win the game. So, our level of play is what's most important. That's where the game will be decided. We love playing in front of our fans and it's a tough place to play because of our fan base."
Finally, when it comes to playoff history against Miami, Buffalo is 2-0 in home playoff games against Miami (1990, 1995) and 3-1 overall including a 29-10 win in the 1992 AFC Championship game.
6 – Special teams edge?
Buoyed by Nyheim Hines' extraordinary return day in Week 18, Buffalo's special teams unit had an end of season ranking of first overall in DVOA (defensive value over average). Their more common league rankings were also respectable as they finished 13th in punt return and sixth in the league in kick return. When it came to covering punts and kicks, they ranked 18th and third in the league respectively.
Buffalo appears to have an advantage in the kicking game Sunday when they face the Dolphins, whose kick and coverage units have struggled mightily. Miami special teams coordinator, Danny Crossman, who held the same title with the Bills for six seasons (2013-2018), including 2017 and 2018 under Sean McDermott, has found it difficult to lift his units up from the lower end of the league rankings.
Miami ranks 31st in the league in both punt return and kick return average. Conversely, they stand 25th in the NFL in punt coverage and is dead last in kickoff coverage.
The Dolphins manage just 5.8 yards per punt return, almost half of what they surrender in punt coverage (10.4). The difference in kick return average for Miami and their opponents is almost 10 yards as they manage just 18.9 yards themselves while giving up almost 28 yards a return (27.8).
It might be wise for Miami to either make sure kicker Jason Sanders can kick the ball through the back of the end zone on kickoffs, so Hines is unable to deliver a big return against the league's worst coverage unit.
"The Patriots decided last week they weren't going to kick to Nyheim Hines by the end of the game and kicked it out of bounds and gave it to the Buffalo offense at the 40," said Salguero, "I would say the Dolphins special teams are going to undergo significant change this offseason. It's not going to happen this week, but things will be addressed."
The Dolphins may not even have their own kick returner available Sunday in Raheem Mostert, who sustained a broken thumb in last week's game against the Jets. His backup is Jaylen Waddle.