ORCHARD PARK - This fact seems rather hard to believe, but it also speaks to where the Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins - and concurrently, the New England Patriots - have been for a large chunk of the past three decades.
When the teams take the field at Hard Rock Stadium Sunday afternoon, it will be the first time since Dec. 19, 1993, that they will meet with sole possession of first place in the AFC East on the line. Yes, it’s a little early to be thinking about first place in the division, but think about how unfathomable that sounds.
This was once one of the great rivalries in the NFL, one where almost every game they played against each other - at least spanning the decade between the late 1980s and late 1990s - meant something, either to the division race or for playoff positioning.
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It was reduced to also-ran status, a twice-a-season staple of the Sunday 1 p.m. schedule, because of their own mediocrity and the Patriots’ dominance of the division. But now Tom Brady is in Tampa Bay, the Bills are consensus Super Bowl favorites, and the perennially uninspiring Dolphins seem to have rounded the corner toward relevance, so there’s some real juice for this game.
“It’s the biggest game of the season, because it’s the next one,” Bills quarterback Josh Allen predictably said. “I know that sounds cliché and you’re not liking that answer, but it’s the truth. You gotta win your division games.”
Here’s my keys game, followed by my prediction:
1. Can the Buffalo Bills injury-riddled defense handle Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle?
There isn’t a bigger storyline than this one - Hill and Waddle going against a badly depleted Bills secondary that will be without CB Dane Jackson and FS Micah Hyde and now, it appears, SS Jordan Poyer per an ESPN report.
There are some weeks where this situation wouldn’t be as much of a concern for the Bills - for instance, last week against the Titans or eventually against teams like the Steelers, Jets and Patriots who just can’t throw the football. Against the Dolphins, it could be a big problem as they will have to defend these two dynamic wide receivers with two rookie CBs starting on the outside, Christian Benford and Kaiir Elam, plus FS JaQuan Johnson who is in his fourth year but has played very little on defense, and probably second-year man Damar Hamlin if Poyer is indeed out.
What makes the matchup so tough is that the Bills’ CBs must respect the speed of Hill and Waddle and have to give them a little cushion at the line, but that creates space for them to do what they do best: Catch quick passes from Tua Tagovailoa and pile up yards after catch.
Another thing that could prove to be a challenge for the young DBs is all the motion Miami coach Mike McDaniel has incorporated into the offense. That along with the high usage of play-action is meant to confuse the defense and helps Tagovailoa read the coverage scheme.
2. Buffalo Bills pass rush has to make a difference
One way to avoid potentially youth-related coverage mistakes is to get heat on Tagovailoa and get him out of rhythm because when teams have done that in the past he has struggled mightily. However, McDaniel’s play designs and route concepts have largely eliminated that issue because the pass rush can’t get to Tagovailoa in timely fashion.
The Bills will try to stick to a four-man rush in order to give the young DBs more help in coverage, so it will be incumbent on edge rushers Von Miller, Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa and Boogie Basham to create early havoc.
Facing minimal pressure, Tagovailoa has been great on third down this year, completing 81% of his passes. Surprisingly, as good as the Bills’ defense has played, it ranks only 20th in third-down defense, allowing conversions 40% of the time. Third down will be especially important in this game because of the danger Hill and Waddle create once they make a catch.
The best way to play defense against Allen and the Bills' high-powered attack it to keep it on the sideline, and Miami has the capability of sustaining drives with its short passing game.
3. Dolphins defense hasn’t exactly been stout
OK, the Dolphins defense looked pretty good in Week 1 against the Patriots’ pop gun offense and limited them to seven points. But last week, if not for the miracle rally helped greatly by the meltdown by the Ravens defense, much of the talk in South Florida this week would have centered on how Lamar Jackson torched the Dolphins defense.
Miami gave up a 79-yard TD run by Jackson and a 75-yard TD pass as Baltimore gained 473 yards with just 25 minutes of possession time and Jackson was never sacked. The Bills should be able to move the ball at will if things are clicking the way they have in the first two games, and they might need to score in the 30s again to win this.
The Dolphins retained defensive coordinator Josh Boyer when McDaniel was hired, and Boyer loves to blitz. He blitzed Allen repeatedly the first four times he faced him - obviously rather unsuccessfully - and after blitzing Jackson on just over half the snaps last week, you can expect he’s going to stay aggressive against Allen.
But here’s the thing: The blitz really isn’t working because the Dolphins have graded out as having the second-worst pressure rate in the league through two weeks because some of their best pass rushers, Emmanuel Ogbah and Jaelen Phillips, have been invisible.
If the Bills offensive line communicates and holds up, Allen should be able to deliver big plays because the Dolphins have some injury concerns of their own. CB Byron Jones is on injured reserve, their best CB, Xavien Howard, is hobbled by a groin injury though it looks like he’ll play, and Boyer replaced struggling CB Nik Needham last week with rookie Kader Kohou.
Jackson was 12-of-14 for 206 yards and two TDs when the Dolphins blitzed, and he doesn’t have anywhere close to the weapons Allen has.
Sal’s prediction: Buffalo Bills 35, Miami Dolphins 27
I think this will be a shootout, only because the Buffalo secondary will be so compromised. Hill and Waddle are probably going to each have big games because unless Benford and Elam play outstanding and there are minimal coverage breakdowns in the back end, those two should thrive in their matchups.
The players who have to be great on defense for Buffalo include nickel CB Taron Johnson and LBs Tremaine Edmunds and Matt Milano because they’re going to be heavily involved on those short crossers and hitches that Hill and Waddle can turn into big plays by breaking a tackle and running after the catch. If the Bills can limit that damage, they should be OK.
On offense, Allen has owned the Dolphins. Twice he has won AFC offensive player of the week awards off games against Miami, and if he has Gabe Davis back this week to join forces with Stefon Diggs, Isaiah McKenzie, Jamison Crowder and Dawson Knox, the Dolphins aren’t stopping this offense.
Sal Maiorana can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @salmaiorana.To subscribe to Sal's new twice-a-week newsletter, Bills Blast, please follow this link: https://profile.democratandchronicle.com/newsletters/bills-blast
This article originally appeared on Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: Bills vs Dolphins predictions and 4 keys to the game