Season on the Brink

(Photo Courtesy of Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post)

Tonight the Bills square off with their longtime division rival, the Miami Dolphins, in the NFL’s dreaded Thursday night slot. While many (myself included) believe Sunday’s loss at home to the Chiefs ended the Bills’ playoff hopes, there can be no doubt that a second consecutive loss would spell the 15th straight year without postseason football in Buffalo. The Dolphins enter this matchup in similar fashion, reeling after a last minute loss in Detroit this past Sunday and, at 5-4, also needing a win to remain in playoff contention. The stakes couldn’t be higher, and, if records are any indication, the 102nd meeting between these two longstanding rivals promises to be a tightly contested affair.

Now let’s go ahead and preview tonight’s matchup with a focus on the three areas where the Bills we need to have success in order to secure their sixth win of the season.

1. Take Advantage of Miami’s Offensive Line Woes

Sunday’s game loss against the Detroit Lions highlighted a fundamental issue that has plagued Miami over the past few seasons, an issue that the Bills are particularly designed to exploit – the Dolphins’ lackluster offensive line. Against Detroit, admittedly one of the best defensive fronts in the league, Ryan Tannehill was sacked three times and hit another nine, sustaining ankle and shoulder injuries in the process. However, the biggest loss that the Dolphins suffered on Sunday came in the form of a season-ending injury to starting LT Brandon Albert, the Dolphins’ expensive free-agent acquisition that had been playing at a consistently high level this season. That means the Dolphins’ starting offensive line tonight will consist of a rookie making his first career start at LT, Dallas Thomas at RT, and a man named “Shelley.”

Enter the Bills, a defense that currently leads the NFL with 34 sacks, 15 of which have come in the team’s last three games. Marcell Dareus is playing at an all-pro level right now with 10 sacks this season (3 last week), and will be matched up against a center, Samson Satele, that weighs approximately 30 lbs less than him. Furthermore, the Bills have a terrifying pair of defensive ends in pass rushing specialist Jerry Hughes and the $100 million man, “Super” Mario Williams. The Bills pass rush should be pinning its ears back right now, ready to face a team that they’ve dominated in the past three meetings, including a 29-10 blowout in the 2014 home opener back in week two.

In his career, Ryan Tannehill has beaten the Bills just once, and has never thrown for more than 250 yards. Tonight, the Bills pass rush looks ready to add to this dismal chapter of the young signal caller’s career.

2. Figure Out What to do in the Red Zone

While the Bills enter tonight’s game with one of the best defenses in the league, their counterpart is nothing to laugh at either. Miami’s defense currently ranks third in the league in yards-per-game and is the 2nd best defense against the pass, allowing just over 210 yards per game to opposing quarterbacks. This is not good news for a team that has struggled on offense throughout the course of the season, and these struggles were magnified in last week’s disappointing loss to the Chiefs.

In particular, the Bills have been woeful in the red zone, ranking dead last in the entire league for offensive efficiency inside the opposition’s 20-yard line. For example, during last week’s game the team made four trips and came away with just six points, a stat that likely cost them the game. The team also left points on the board in multiple drives against the Jets in a game that should’ve featured a far higher margin of victory for the visitors. Now they face another stern test with the Dolphins and the team must figure out how to be less wasteful in the red zone and to convert field goals into touchdowns. Maybe this means Mike Williams finally makes an appearance, or maybe it means not throwing the football twice from the 3 yard line, I don’t know? The Bills simply cannot waste another dominant performance by their defense though

3. Coach Like the Season is on the Line

As I mentioned earlier, a loss tonight will all but eliminate the Bills from playoff contention. Sure the team could rattle off five or six wins to close the season, but most reasonable fans can’t expect this team to win more than two games in a December that features trips to New England, Denver, and a visit from Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. That means Doug Marrone, Nate Hackett, and Jim Schwartz all need to get their shit together and coach like it’s a one-game season. I’m tired of seeing punts from midfield on 4th and short, or two-yard passes on a third and four. Rather than sit back in zone coverage on 3rd and 16, send an extra rusher and put some heat on the passer. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m tired of seeing Bills coaches playing not to lose instead of playing to win.

For the first time in a long time, this team is playing meaningful games in November with an actual chance to make a run at the playoffs. And if Marrone and his coaching staff truly are aware of what this means to the city of Buffalo, then he’ll break from tradition and coach like he truly has nothing to lose.

 

Prediction: Bills win 24-9, sack Tannehill six times.

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