8:30 PM EST, CBS/NFL Network – Line: Miami -6
Division rivals and playoff hopefuls meet tonight at SunLife Stadium as the Miami Dolphins host the Buffalo Bills on Thursday Night Football. So ladies and gentlemen, at first thought which franchise is currently experiencing the longest postseason drought in the NFL? If you had guessed the Bills, then you would be correct. Buffalo (5-4) hasn’t made the Playoffs since 1999, but with just over half of the season in the books remains in contention for not just one of the AFC’s Wild Cards, but possibly the AFC East as well. Doug Marrone and his charges emerged from their Bye Week to disappointment, as the welcomed Kansas City to Orchard Park and were narrowly defeated to the tune of 17-13. The hosts outgained the visitors by 86 yards, but three unfortunate turnovers did them in. Buffalo held a 13-3 lead entering the Fourth Quarter, but relinquished a pair of touchdowns in the final stanza, while turning it over on downs before losing their third fumble of the day on their final two drives of the contest. Kyle Orton had to throw the ball quite a bit (29-of-48) that day, netting 259 yards and a touchdown, spreading his passes to seven different receivers. Defensively, the Bills sacked Chiefs’ Quarterback Alex Smith six times, three of them credited to Marcell Dareus, and also managed to force a pair of fumbles. Now begins a crucial stretch for this team, for after tonight they will face New York Jets and Cleveland Browns at home, before having to hit the road for a trip to Denver to meet the Broncos before coming back home to battle the Green Bay Packers, which could ultimately make or break their Playoff hopes. When these teams met back in Week Two, Buffalo handled Miami with relative ease in a 29-10 victory, in which their defense relegated the visitors to just 290 yards and three turnovers.
When this season is over and done, if the Bills finally return to the postseason after fifteen years of futility, people will point to the change under Center as the moment their collective fortunes changed for the better. Even though they were 2-2 at the the time, Marrone was ready to bench second-year starter E.J. Manuel in favor of Kyle Orton, who was convinced to come out of near retirement midway through the Preseason to lead the offense. And it’s a good thing he did; Orton has been excellent in managing this unit, bringing a long-lost sense of stability to a position that has rarely seen it since Jim Kelly retired nearly two decades ago. Buffalo is 3-2 since Orton took over as the starter, with significant improvement on the offensive side of the ball; in four games with Manuel under Center, the Bills averaged just 19.8 points on 320.8 total yards, including 198.5 yards through the air, but with Orton calling shots, the offense has managed to score 22.4 points on 339.2 yards, with 256.6 of that figure coming on the strength of the ninth-year veteran’s arm. And there really hasn’t been any comparison between the two Quarterbacks’ individual statistics; Orton has compiled a higher completion percentage (65.6% to 58.0%), yards per attempt (7.3 to 6.4), yards per game (277.4 to 209.5), and more touchdowns (10) with as many interceptions as his teammate (3). And if that wasn’t enough to validate the switch, the running game hasn’t been nearly as effective since Week Four, churning out an average of just 82.6 yards, representing a steep decline when compared to the 122.3 yards they enjoyed throughout the first four games of the campaign. Injuries to both Fred Jackson (groin) and C.J. Spiller (collarbone) have played a big part in that regression, with the former returning last weekend to rush for ten yards on three carries, while the latter has since been placed on Injured Reserve. Further aiding his cause, has been his hand in the development of First Round Pick (4th overall) Sammy Watkins, who has really come on over the last month with 25 receptions on 45 targets for 420 yards (16.8 yards/catch) and three touchdowns. In fact, the Rookie’s two best performances, a nine catch, 122-yard day at Minnesota followed by an explosive three-catch, 157-yard game against the Jets has come with Orton slinging the ball. Either way, while the offense continues to evolve with a steadier hand guiding them, the defense has already arrived; Marrone’s defense, coached by former Lions’ skipper Jim Schwartz, has been nasty this season, allowing 20.2 points (7th overall) on 320.7 yards (6th overall), including 224.6 yards against the pass (7th overall) on 5.6 net yards per attempt (4th overall), and another 96.1 yards on the ground (8th overall) on 3.7 yards per carry (7th overall), all the while forcing nineteen turnovers (2nd overall), a dozen of which being interceptions (4th overall), and leading the NFL with 34.0 sacks. The aforementioned Dareus looks Pro Bowl bound for the second consecutive season, leading the team with ten sacks in the middle of the Defensive Line.
Meanwhile, the Dolphins (5-4) have also outperformed expectations to a degree, injecting themselves into contention for a possible Wild Card in the AFC. It may not seem like it, but Miami hasn’t been to Playoffs very much in recent history, qualifying just once (2008) over the last fourteen years. However, after a truly ugly 2013 campaign bathed in the regrettable Richie Incognito-Jonathan Martin controversy, 2014 has been a breath of fresh air for Joe Philbin and Co. who with a few fortunate breaks could very well be 7-2 and atop the division. Case in point; last weekend at Detroit, the visitors gave the NFC North-leading Lions everything they could handle, rallying back from a 10-0 hole in the First Quarter to establish a 16-13 lead with just 3:27 left in the final stanza, but Matthew Stafford was able to engineer an eleven-play, 74-yard drive culminating in a Theo Riddick with 0:36 left on the clock sealing their fate. Sunday’s loss was their second by four points or less, providing evidence of growth from a team that was in dire need of it last season. With that said, the Medical Staff has not been left wanting, for the list of injuries is starting to get out of hand on South Beach. Two of Philbin’s biggest acquisitions this Offseason, Left Tackle Branden Albert (knee) and Tailback Knowshon Moreno (knee) have both been placed on Injured Reserve, with the former suffering a torn ACL during last weekend’s loss at Ford Field. The Dolphins’ Offensive Line was a mess last year, and as a result their running game lacked any consistency, but through nine games thus far they’ve racked up 127.6 yards per game (7th overall) on a healthy 4.6 yards per carry (5th overall), with both Albert and Moreno playing huge roles in said improvement.
Also benefiting from better Line Play is Ryan Tannehill, the third-year Quarterback who was sacked more times (58) and with more frequency (9.0%) than any other player last season. The third year in the league is generally when you see the biggest strides in development made by young Quarterbacks, and while he has clearly had his struggles thus far, the former First Round Pick has definitely had his moments as well. Through nine games, Tannehill has completed a career-high 64.3% of his passes for 2,114 yards, fifteen touchdowns and seven interceptions, while making use of his athleticism with 245 rushing yards on 33 carries. Furthermore, he has only been sacked twenty times this term, at a significantly smaller frequency (5.9%). Earlier in the campaign, Philbin publicly proclaimed that his Quarterback’s status as the starter would be evaluated week-by-week, but it seems as if that was just a Jedi Mind Trick from the former Packers’ Offensive Coordinator, for Tannehill has responded in a big way; over the last five games, the youngster has completed 68.3% of his passes for 1,212 yards, nine touchdowns and four interceptions, including a 4/1 ratio over the last contests alone. However, even with better protection up front, this kid has still been reluctant to stretch the field. The Dolphins’ passing attack has been overly heavy on short-passes, ranking fifth-worst in the league in net yards per pass attempt (5.8), with Tannehill checking in a next-to-last among starting Quarterbacks (6.6), a figure that has decreased in each of his three seasons in the NFL. This of course means that the passing game is far from explosive, which is not what the franchise expected when they signed speed-demon Mike Wallace to hefty contract two years ago. One of the premier vertical threats in the game today, Wallace was supposed to provide Tannehill with a quality deep threat, but instead has been relegated to making plays after a short catch; in four years in Pittsburgh, Wallace averaged 17.2 yards per reception, but in twenty-five games in Miami has netted just 12.8 yards per catch. Thankfully, the defense has done a tremendous job in stalling the opposition, keeping games close for their compatriots on the other side of the ball. Thus far, Philbin’s defense has been stellar, allowing 19.0 points (5th overall) on 309.8 total yards (4th overall), including 210.8 yards versus the pass (2nd overall) on 5.3 net yards per attempt (1st overall), along with 99.0 yards versus the run (10th overall) on 3.9 yards per carry (10th overall), forcing nineteen turnovers (2nd overall), ten of which being interceptions (7th overall), and logging 28.0 sacks (3rd overall). Veterans Cameron Wake (8.5 sacks) and Brent Grimes (5 interceptions) have been bonafide playmakers, particularly the latter, who has now picked off four passes in his last three games.