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7 things to watch for in Bills vs. Dolphins | Week 17


1. Will we see Bills' starters?

Bills head coach Sean McDermott said at the beginning of the week that the staff had a plan in place for which players would be on the field for Sunday's regular season finale but chose to keep it internal. If last season's Week 17 lineup is any indication, Buffalo will sit a good number of their regulars and play others sparingly against Miami.

Last year, with no way to improve their playoff seeding, the Bills sat Cole Beasley, John Brown, Andre Roberts, Devin Singletary and Tre'Davious White. Most of the other starters on both sides of the ball played no more than a series or two.

Whether that approach is altered because the Bills have the ability to clinch the number two seed with a victory and ensure they play at home through the Divisional playoff round remains to be seen. Buffalo could also lose and provided Pittsburgh loses at Cleveland they could still land the second seed in the AFC. Buffalo would get the three seed if they lost and Pittsburgh won.

"It all comes back to again making sure that we're doing right by our team," McDermott said. "We're always trying to weigh every variable we can and try to put that into the equation to help us make a good decision here, and yet at the same time we got to come back and do what's right for our team."

2. Fitz not an option

On more than one occasion since Dolphins head coach Brian Flores made rookie Tua Tagovailoa the starting quarterback, he's made a call to the bullpen for veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to try to pull victory from the jaws of defeat.

That won't be an option for Flores this Sunday. That's because Fitzpatrick was placed on the reserve/COVID list on Thursday this week. It removes any chance of Miami's backup quarterback being available for the season finale against the Bills.

Fitzpatrick was brought on in the fourth quarter last week to try to pull out a victory against the Raiders in Las Vegas. The veteran QB helped generate 13 points in the three drives he was afforded including the game-winning field goal as time expired.

Earlier this week Flores named Tagovailoa the starting quarterback for Sunday's season finale against the Bills but left open the option of turning to Fitzpatrick. But now that option is gone.

To say that the absence of Fitz hit the Dolphins roster hard would be an understatement.

In regard to Fitzpatrick's subtraction for Sunday's game, veteran S Eric Rowe told Miami reporters, "This hurts."

To have a backup quarterback available for the game, the Dolphins signed free agent QB Jake Rudock. He has been on and off the Dolphins roster and practice squad a handful of times over the past two years, so he has familiarity with their offensive system. He last played in a regular season game in 2017 as a member of the Detroit Lions.

3. Division sweep on the table

Buffalo has an impressive 6-2 record on the road for the second consecutive season. They're also 6-1 at home. But an even more elusive mark is open to the Bills on Sunday when they host the Dolphins.

Sean McDermott's squad have the opportunity to run the table in the division.

The Bills have won each of their first five division games, sweeping both the Jets and Patriots this season. They also beat the Dolphins in Week 2 and now can register a perfect division record with a win on Sunday.

When asked if he's eager to go unbeaten in the division, Jordan Poyer answered in the affirmative.

"I'm very eager," Poyer said. "We have another opportunity to play another division opponent and come out on top with a victory. It's our next opponent, so anytime you get a chance to go out and play we're excited about the opportunity. We want to go out and win the football game, so we'll work hard each day so we can go out and execute on Sunday."

A perfect division record is something that has never been accomplished in team history, but it's likely that making decisions for the playoff push will take precedence.

4. Takeaway artists

The Dolphins defense has transformed itself into a premier takeaway unit. Miami is tied for the league lead in takeaways with 27 through their first 15 games. A major force in that effort for the Dolphins has been CB Xavien Howard, who has a league-leading nine interceptions.

Howard had a pair of interception streaks this season. He went four straight games with a pick and followed that up with a five-game interception streak, which is tied for the longest streak in Dolphins history.

Miami has capitalized on most of their takeaways as they rank 10th in the NFL in points off turnovers with 75.

The Dolphins' ability to protect the ball has also helped as they're also tied for the league lead in turnover margin at plus-11.

5. No. 1 vs. No. 1

If the Bills choose not to make use of their starters on offense this matchup will lose some of its luster, but Buffalo's top ranked third-down conversion offense faces Miami's No. 1 ranked third down defense.

Throughout the season, the Bills have ranked in the top five in this category in 14 of the league's first 16 regular season weeks. For the Dolphins, the climb to the league's top ranked third down defense has been more of a steady ascent.

The emergence of Josh Allen as a star quarterback capable of extending plays even when under pressure combined with one of the greatest collection of separators at the wide receiver position, Buffalo has proven to be a third down conversion juggernaut. Converting at better than 50 percent on the season (50.3%) the Bills have moved the sticks even when facing long down and distance situations.

Even from 3rd-and-7 to 3rd-and-15, Buffalo has a conversion rate of 42 percent when they pass the ball.

"As a staff we put together some ideas and talk through what we think is the best way to handle or try to get our opponent off the field," said Dolphins head coach Brian Flores. "Those can be long conversations, which they've been already this week with the challenges that (Brian) Daboll and the Bills offense with (Josh) Allen and (Stefon) Diggs and with John Brown coming back and Cole Beasley, the backs and (Devin) Singletary. These guys do a good job and there's a lot of weapons there, not to mention (Josh) Allen's ability to even if they play – if you have him covered, he scrambles and picks it up like he did last week and he's done all year. They pose a lot of problems, so that third-down meeting is ongoing and hopefully we can execute on Sunday."

Back in Week 2, the Bills converted half of their third down opportunities going 5-10 in the game, but the Dolphins did not have CB Byron Jones, who left the game after three plays with an injury. For Miami it was the highest third-down conversion rate allowed all season. No other opponent since then has converted more than 46 percent of the time on third down.

Kansas City was the only team that came close to making good on 45.4 percent of their third downs against Miami in Week 14.

"As a team, we're a completely different team honestly," said Miami LB Jerome Baker in reference to their first meeting with the Bills. "We played them in Week 2. We're just a completely different team. We have different things that we'll try defensively, but ultimately we'll have to play together as a team."

6. Blitzing battle

Both Buffalo and Miami's defensive units have turned to the blitz often to generate consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Dolphins blitz at the third-highest rate in the league at just over 41 percent (41.2%). The Bills aren't far behind blitzing at a rate of just under 39 percent (38.8%), good for seventh-most in the league.

Buffalo's blitz tactics have proven more effective in forcing incompletions as they're allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete just 55 percent of their passes, the third lowest success rate in the league. Miami's blitzing permits a 58 percent completion rate, seventh lowest in the league.

The league's most effective quarterback against the blitz this season in terms of completion percentage has been the Dolphins' Ryan Fitzpatrick. He's connecting on 62 percent of his passes when under pressure this season.

Both the Bills and Dolphins blitz schemes also rank in the top 10 in passer rating allowed.

7. Fins banged up at receiver

The Dolphins passing game has been a bit shorthanded for a while due to injury. WR Preston Williams has been on injured reserve since mid-November with a foot injury. Jakeem Grant just suffered a high-ankle sprain in last week's win at Las Vegas and has been ruled out for this week.

WR Devante Parker, who has missed the last two games, is trying to return from a hamstring injury and practiced on a limited basis this week.

Miami elevated practice squad receiver Isaiah Ford to the active roster on Wednesday to help fill the void, but the Dolphins passing game has largely relied on their tight ends and backs to pick up the slack.

TE Mike Gesicki and RB Myles Gaskin rank second and third on the team in receptions.

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