Dolphins blow best chance at beating Bills with butchered 4th-down sequence, wasted timeouts

The Miami Dolphins had a great chance to stun the Buffalo Bills on Sunday in the wild-card round despite playing with third-string quarterback Skylar Thompson.

But they blew their best shot thanks to poor game management and wasted timeouts that came back to bite them late in the fourth quarter.

With the Bills leading, 34-31, the Dolphins faced fourth-and-a-short-1 near midfield with the clock ticking under three minutes. The decision was clear. Go for it.

How to go for it apparently wasn't so clear. The Dolphins were slow to substitute and communicate the play call. When the play clock hit 4 seconds, they were still in their huddle. They didn't get the play off on time.

They also didn't have any timeouts remaining. The result of the sequence was a delay-of-game penalty. Instead of fourth-and-1 with their season on the line, they faced fourth-and-6, an obvious passing situation. Thompson faced immediate pressure on the ensuing play and threw an incomplete pass intended for tight end Mike Gesicki.

The Bills took over on downs and ran out the clock to hold on for a 34-31 win and advance to next week's AFC divisional round, where it'll host another postseason game. The Dolphins, meanwhile, saw their season end on a missed opportunity. They can look to second-half clock management as a primary culprit. Miami wasted all three of its second-half timeouts on offense.

Blown timeouts prove costly

The Dolphins burned their third and final timeout earlier on their final drive for the same reason. They let the play clock wind down on a third-and-10 and used the timeout to avoid a delay of game penalty.

Their first timeout of the second half: Same thing. With the play clock ticking toward zero, the Dolphins called a timeout on a second-down play.

Their second timeout: You guessed it. With the play clock winding down on third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins were slow to leave the huddle. They called timeout with 1 second remaining on the play clock to avoid a delay-of-game penalty.

ORCHARD PARK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 15: Head coach Mike McDaniel of the Miami Dolphins reacts during the second half of the game against the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card playoff game at Highmark Stadium on January 15, 2023 in Orchard Park, New York. (Photo by Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)
Game mismanagement proved costly on Sunday for Mike McDaniel's Dolphins. (Bryan M. Bennett/Getty Images)

McDaniel: Dolphins thought they had a first down

That's three timeouts the Dolphins would have possessed on their final possession if not for game mismanagement. They also got their signals crossed on that pivotal fourth-down call. After the game, McDaniel told reporters that he thought Miami secured a first down on the previous play and was told so "from upstairs." They didn't have a fourth-down play ready to go.

It adds up to a series of frustrating mistakes from a team with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback who otherwise exceeded expectations in a game they were expected to lose by a wide margin. That they kept things close will be of little solace considering the unforced errors.