What transpires on Sunday could go a long way to determine whether or not the Buffalo Bills are indeed a playoff team in 2017.
The Miami Dolphins come to town for the home finale at New Era Field. After that, Buffalo faces trips to Foxborough and South Florida to close out this year’s regular season campaign. With nine wins the likely minimum threshold for the postseason, it requires the Bills taking two out of three to close things out.
The ideal scenario here is a season sweep of Miami. But that’s far from an easy task, especially considering the ‘Fins will come to Orchard Park brimming with confidence. They find themselves winners of their last two. It includes a blowout of the Denver Broncos and a huge Monday Night Football triumph over the New England Patriots.
These two long-time rivals have played each other twice during the regular season every year since the Dolphins entered the old AFL in 1966. Sunday’s clash is by far the latest the first of those two games occurred. You have to go back to November 25, 2001 to find the latest first meeting of the season previous to this one.
It’s a battle that contains playoff implications for both teams. Not only are the Bills looking to exorcise demons 18 years in the making. But the Dolphins are in line to enhance their wild card hopes in search of consecutive postseason appearances for the first time since 2001. Who prevails and in so doing takes that next step to the 12-team tournament beginning in January?
Week 15 Buffalo Bills Keys to Victory
Control the Line of Scrimmage on Both Sides of the Ball
Two overarching themes have defined the Bills 2017 season. Both of them relate to the running game. On the one hand, they’ve excelled at dictating things on offense with LeSean McCoy in the midst of another standout season. Consequently, it’s been an abysmal effort at limiting opposing ground attacks from running roughshod over the defense. Case in point: over their last six games (the Bills are 2-4 in that span), Buffalo is giving up an average of 174.5 rushing yards per game.
With respect to the latter, losing Marcell Dareus certainly played a part. His ability to draw double teams up front gave the linebackers a much easier time maintaining gap integrity and effective run fits. In his absence, it’s been smooth sailing for running backs as they maraud into the second and third level of the Bills’ defense en route to big gains. More of the same could be in the offing if Buffalo’s front seven doesn’t step up.
The Bills certainly don’t want a repeat performance from last year’s games with the Dolphins. Jay Ajayi ran wild in both, exceeding 200 rushing yards each time en route to becoming the fourth running back in NFL history to do so three times in a season. With Ajayi departing for the Philadelphia Eagles at the trade deadline, it puts the onus on Kenyan Drake to step up. And suffice it to say he’s done just that during the Dolphins’ two-game winning streak. The second-year pro out of Alabama is averaging 24 carries and 117 yards in that time.
Not only must the Bills limit Drake. McCoy also needs to continue his hot run of form. He made playing in the snow look easy in week 14, totaling 156 yards on 32 carries as a lake effect band concomitantly parked itself over New Era Field. Part of his effectiveness came from the offensive line utilizing duo blocking sets. This entails the guards reach blocking an opposing defensive lineman as part of a double team, then climbing into the second level to down block a linebacker. The scheme came in handy on McCoy‘s game-winning touchdown run in overtime.
Shady is also on the verge of a huge milestone. He needs just 39 more yards to become the 30th running back in NFL history to reach 10,000 career rushing yards. Only two others who’ve achieved the feat, Adrian Peterson and Frank Gore, are active players. On a day that’s expected to be much more benign than last week’s snow fest, McCoy is certainly in position to make it happen.
Stay on Schedule
Oftentimes, fans hear coaches and commentators refer to the term “staying on schedule” when it comes to the offense. What exactly does that mean? Is it related to ball control and time of possession? Not really. It refers to down and distance situations that consistently give you chances to get first downs during a drive. A good example is a couple solid gains to set up a makable third and short. What’s not? Getting whistled for holding or giving up a sack on first or second down, thus necessitating a 10+ yard play to move the chains.
The Bills are putting together a respectable effort in this regard during the 2017 season. It shows in the fact that they rank third among NFL teams in third downs per game (6.7) and tenth in overall third down conversion percentage (41.1 percent). Generally speaking, teams who excel both on third down and running the ball tend to win games in the NFL. The Bills are no different. Since 1991, they own a 51-17 record when converting over 40 percent of their third downs and gaining over 150 rushing yards (per Pro Football Reference).
That said, if there’s anything the Dolphins proved in Week 14, it’s that they force teams into punting/field goal situations on a regular basis. Against the Pats, they didn’t allow a single third down conversion. It marked the first time in the Tom Brady era that New England failed to move the sticks in such a situation. Part of it involved Pro Bowl caliber play from cornerback Xavien Howard, who intercepted Brady twice on third down. Assuming the weather’s better and Tyrod Taylor (Nathan Peterman remains in the concussion protocol and is out for Sunday’s game) gets more chances to throw, their third down decision-making in pass situations needs to be spot on.
Give Jay Cutler a Cold Reception
One of the more interesting and perhaps surprising aspects of Jay Cutler‘s 12-year career is that he’s 2-0 against the Bills on the road yet 0-2 at home. Cutler’s first game in Buffalo came during week one of the 2007 season, his second in the league. The Denver Broncos narrowly won by a 15-14 scoreline in a game marred by a scary spinal injury to the Bills’ Kevin Everett. Cutler’s only other performance at New Era Field was three years later as a member of the Chicago Bears. Once again, his team narrowly came out on top, 22-19.
Earlier this year, the thought of Cutler making another foray into Orchard Park seemed far-fetched at best. The 34-year-old retired in the off-season and looked to be on his way to a broadcasting career a la Tony Romo. But Dolphins head coach Adam Gase coaxed him out of retirement after Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending knee injury during the preseason. Though he’s been inconsistent at best in 2017, Cutler impressed mightily against Brady and the Pats last week.
The Bills must bring him back down to earth on Sunday in order to get to 8-6. Part of it involves getting back to forcing turnovers on a regular basis. After the Bills week eight win over the Oakland Raiders, they boasted a league leading +14 turnover margin. Since then, they’ve forced a paltry three while losing 13 and as a result have plummeted to 12th in that particular statistic. The only player with an interception since the win over the Raiders is rookie Tre’Davious White who has a pair. Whether it’s E.J. Gaines, Jordan Poyer or Pro Bowl candidate Micah Hyde, the rest of the secondary needs to step up in an absolute must win game.