Usually making the NFL playoffs is a joyous occasion. However, the excitement drained quickly out of South Beach and the Miami Dolphins following head coach Mike McDaniel's announcement that quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was ruled out while dealing with another concussion. Miami immediately became one of the largest playoff underdogs in the 21st century, as it is shifting from Tagovailoa, the NFL's leader in yards per pass attempt (8.9) and passer rating (105.5), to seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson -- who had the worst yards per pass attempt (5.1) and passer rating (62.2) among 47 quarterbacks with more than 100 pass attempts this season -- with backup Teddy Bridgewater dealing with a hand injury of his own.
Sadly, this is familiar territory for the Dolphins. They were also without their starting quarterback the last time they made the playoffs in 2016 when they were missing Ryan Tannehill due to an ACL injury and started journeyman Matt Moore in his place. Miami lost, 30-12, in the wild-card round against the Pittsburgh Steelers. The last time Miami made the playoffs and had its starter at quarterback was 2008 with Chad Pennington, but that didn't result in a win, either. Its last victory came in the 2000 wild-card round against the Indianapolis Colts with Jay Fiedler at quarterback.
The Dolphins have the second-longest active drought of seasons without a playoff win, trailing only the Detroit Lions, who have been waiting since 1991 when Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders was in uniform. Here are three things the Dolphins will have to do in order to knock off quarterback Josh Allen and the heavily-favored Buffalo Bills and end their wait for playoff victory.
1. Wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle need to erupt
Even though the Dolphins are down to their third-string quarterback, the best thing they have going for them is the NFL's most explosive wide receiver duo: Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Hill's 1,710 receiving yards this season set the franchise's single-season record as well as the record for the most in a player's first season with a team in league history. Prior to Tagovailoa's concussion issues, Hill's mere presence made a quarterback much-maligned for his deep ball one of the league's leaders in going deep.
Waddle, only in his second NFL season, led the entire league by averaging 18.1 yards per catch. Much of that figure came against the Bills, as he totaled 216 receiving yards and a touchdown on seven catches for an eye-popping average of 30.9 yards per reception across the two meetings. Both receivers had big-play scores in the last meeting, a 32-29 Bills win in Week 15 in which Buffalo needed a game-winning field goal with no time remaining to secure the victory at home. Waddle's was a 67-yarder after he simply out-ran the entire Bills secondary by finding a hole behind Buffalo's zone defense.
He was GONE when his feet hit the ground! 🐧 @D1__JW— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
📺: #MIAvsBUF on @NFLNetwork
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/OppdDaKY2o pic.twitter.com/tdhvjv5Y2i
Hill found the end zone in Week 15 for a 20-yard score in which he ran a straight vertical route down the right sideline, and Tagovailoa simply dropped the football right into his arms.
Cheetahs also thrive in the cold? @MiamiDolphins LEAD! @cheetah #FinsUp— NFL (@NFL) December 18, 2022
📺: #MIAvsBUF on @NFLNetwork
📱: Stream on NFL+ https://t.co/OppdDaKY2o pic.twitter.com/nJPej29pOD
Miami will have to be more creative with its route concepts since Thompson clearly isn't the passer Tagovailoa is, but creativity is what McDaniel does: the Dolphins offense has the highest motion rate (75.1%) and play-action rate (24.1%) by any team in the past five seasons.
2. Defense must find ways to force Josh Allen into making bad decisions
Josh Allen put up humongous numbers, both good and bad, in 2022. His 5,045 total yards and 42 total touchdowns were both the second-most in the NFL behind only the MVP favorite, Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes. On the flip side, Allen led the league with 19 turnovers, becoming the first to do that and make the playoffs since Eli Manning in 2007. Six of those giveaways came at the most inopportune time, in the red zone, the most turnovers inside an opponent's 20-yard line since Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshone Kizer's eight in the 2017.
While one would think blitzing Allen would be the way to force him into these turnovers, that has not been the case, as he leads the NFL in passing yards per attempt (8.1), passing touchdowns (13), and passer rating (96.7) when under pressure this season. However, blitzing is what the Dolphins do, having the second-highest blitz rate (38%) in the NFL this season behind only the New York Giants' 43.9% rate. Allen, however, hasn't had any trouble with Miami's blitzes this season, completing 22 of his 29 passes against it for 264 passing yards for four touchdowns, no interceptions, and a 142.8 passer rating.
Despite that success, Miami should keep doing what it likes to do. It blitzed Allen on 33.8% of his dropbacks, the second-highest blitz rate he's faced in a game all season, in its 21-19 win against the Bills in Week 3. Even though he didn't throw an interception when facing it, Allen made some crucial mistakes in the red zone, including a turnover on downs two yards from the goal line after throwing the ball into the ground while his target, receiver Isaiah McKenzie, was open in the right corner for a score in the fourth quarter. The game Allen faced the blitz the most (35.7% of his dropbacks) was a 23-20 win at the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4, but it was ugly. When the Dolphins didn't blitz Allen as much in Week 15 (20% of his dropbacks) the dual-threat dynamo shredded Miami's defense for 304 passing yards and four passing touchdowns.
For the Dolphins to win Sunday, they need to muck things up and blitz as much as possible with the hope that Allen -- the NFL's most turnover-prone player this season -- gets sped up by the incessant blitzing and perhaps makes some costly mistakes.
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3. Run the ball and win time of possession battle
The Bills were the NFL's fifth-best run defense this season, allowing 104.6 yards on the ground per game. However, they got their face smashed in in Week 15 when these two teams met in Buffalo, as the Dolphins averaged a whopping 7.5 yards per carry, the most allowed in a game by the Bills this season. Most of that damage was done by the turbo-charged Raheem Mostert, with 136 yards on 17 carries, as fellow former 49ers running back Jeff Wilson missed the game with a hip injury.
Now, Mostert is likely out this week with a broken thumb he suffered in Week 18 against the New York Jets. However, Wilson is in the midst of the best year of his five-year career with 860 rush yards and 4.9 yards per carry. No matter what, McDaniel needs to keep giving him the rock in an attempt to wear out the Bills defense that would rather play more defensive backs and drop into coverage.
In Week 15, the Dolphins only won the time of possession battle by 14 seconds (30:07 to 29:53) and lost on a game-winning field goal with no time remaining. If they're going to win this week, they'll need to stay on the field way longer than Allen and the Bills offense. Fourteen seconds won't cut it, but five or more minutes just might.