The Miami Dolphins improved to 3-0 on the season and took sole possession of first place in the AFC East when they defeated the Buffalo Bills, 21-19, at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.
Before the game, we broke down the five biggest storylines for this matchup, and now it’s time to revisit how those played out.
1. What Can Tua Do for an Encore?
BEFORE THE GAME: Yes, there are other significant issues in this game, but for the Dolphins, there’s probably nothing more important that seeing what Tua Tagovailoa can do after his monumental fourth-quarter performance in the comeback victory at Baltimore. Nobody is expecting him to pass for 469 yards or six touchdowns again against a much-better secondary (yes, even with all the Buffalo injuries), but being able to put together back-to-back strong performances would be another step toward cementing his long-term status as Dolphins quarterback.
DURING THE GAME: While he didn’t come close to matching his numbers from the Baltimore game, as expected, Tua put together another very good performance as he continues to make his case to cement his spot as the quarterback of the future. His passer rating again was outstanding and he had two big-time throws, his touchdown pass to River Cracraft in the first half and the 45-yard bomb to Jaylen Waddle that set up the game-winning touchdown. Because this is Buffalo, though, Tua couldn’t escape the game without some physical damage, this time a back injury that sidelined him for the Dolphins’ final three offensive plays of the first half.
2. How Well Can the Offensive Line Perform?
BEFORE THE GAME: Tua can be as sharp as ever, but it won’t help if he doesn’t have time to throw the ball, and that obviously has been a major issue anytime he has faced the Bills. It doesn’t help matters that Terron Armstead continues to deal with a toe injury, though the pass protection against Baltimore was borderline flawless except for one series in the second quarter. The Buffalo pass rush, however, is several notches above that of the Ravens and given their injury issues in the secondary, it’s entirely possible the Bills defensive game plan will focus even more on getting in Tua’s face. It will be up to the offensive line to at the very least slow down that Buffalo pass rush.
DURING THE GAME: The Dolphins allowed two sacks against a very good pass rush and held Von Miller in check, except for the late third-down screen pass that he disrupted with quick pressure on Tua. So that was a job well done. It wasn’t perfect, but Buffalo was credited with only three QB hits during the game, and one of the two sacks came during Teddy Bridgewater’s brief time in the game. Armstead again was able to play every snap, this time without practicing at all during the week because of his toe injury. The Dolphins did have to do some juggling up front when Robert Hunt and Greg Little briefly left the game, but the results weren’t disastrous. More importantly, the line gave Tua a perfect pocket on the 45-yard completion to Waddle. And given that this was Buffalo, it was a major improvement over last year.
3. Can the Defense Contain Josh Allen for the Whole Game?
BEFORE THE GAME: It’s no great secret that Josh Allen has been a big problem for the Dolphins since he entered the NFL as the seventh overall pick in the 2018 draft, with a 7-1 record, 21 touchdown passes against only five interceptions and a passer rating of 106.8. But the reality is the Dolphins shut down Allen in the first half of the two games last season, even though Buffalo ended up winning them by a combined score of 61-11. The numbers speak loudly: Allen had a passer rating of 60.4 in the first half in the two Dolphins-Bills games last year, compared to 114.5 in the second half. While the Bills made some adjustments at halftime of each game, this also was the result of the Miami offense simply putting the defense back on the field too often and giving Allen too many opportunities.
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DURING THE GAME: Statistically, the Dolphins absolutely failed in containing Allen, given that he passed for 400 yards and ran for another 47. But the defense did a great job at key moments — the goal-line stand obviously stands out — and produced a game-changing plays in the first half (the Jevon Holland sack-strip, just like it had in the opener against New England. The Dolphins made the Bills slowly march down the field, not giving up a completion longer than 28 yards. And the bottom line is the Dolphins held Buffalo to 19 points after the Bills had averaged 36 points in the first two games. The effort could have been even more impressive had the Dolphins defense been able to come up with any of the five passes defenders got their hands on, but none of them were easy picks, but the defensive effort was solid anyway — despite Buffalo’s yardage total.
FOR EVEN MORE COVERAGE ON THE MIAMI DOLPHINS, CHECK OUT SPORTS ILLUSTRATED’S MIAMI DOLPHINS PAGE ON SI.COM
4. The Wide Receiver Battle
BEFORE THE GAME: It’s going to be tough to find any games with so much talent at wide receiver, with this matchup featuring the top three NFL leaders in receiving yards — Tyreek Hill with 284, Stefon Diggs with 270 and Jaylen Waddle with 240. And that’s not even factoring emerging Bills star Gabe Davis, who sat out Week 2 because of an ankle injury and is questionable for the game. While the receivers need the quarterbacks to deliver them the ball, it’s entirely possible this game could come down to which wide receiver has the biggest day.
DURING THE GAME: With Buffalo having the ball more than 40 minutes, it was difficult for Hill and Waddle to put up big numbers, but Waddle managed anyway thanks mostly to his two catches on the game-winning touchdown drive, a 32-yard reception to start the drive and the big 45-yarder on third-and-22. Hill, meanwhile, pretty much was a non-factor. Diggs had solid numbers with seven catches for 74 yards, but he had only 46 yards after his 28-yard pick-up on the first offensive play of the game. Davis, meanwhile, had only three catches for 37 yards, though he did come close to having a touchdown before Keion Crossen knocked the ball away in the end zone. Final outcome here is advantage Dolphins, thanks to Waddle.
5. How Much Will the Injuries Factor in the Outcome?
BEFORE THE GAME: There were an awful lot of big names on that final injury report Friday, including two of the Dolphins’ best players — Armstead and Xavien Howard — and three-fourths of Buffalo’s starting secondary. While many of the players listed as questionable will end up playing, it remains to be seen how effective they will be. This came into play last week when Ravens star cornerback Marlon Humphrey played despite a groin injury and was pulled at key stages of the fourth quarter. Yes, injuries are part of the game, but to deny they can impact the outcome of a game is naive.
DURING THE GAME: Injuries are part of the game and no coach will mention them after the fact, and Bills head coach Sean McDermott certainly wasn’t going there after his team came up short. Yes, Buffalo was massively banged up in the secondary with all four of its starters out, but this game was decided between the Bills offense and Dolphins defense. And there it was issues on the Bills offensive line that proved more significant after losing two players up front. Let’s not forget that perhaps the biggest play of Buffalo’s final drive was the holding penalty induced by Emmanuel Ogbah against right tackle David Quessenberry, who had come into the game to replace starter Spencer Brown after he left the game with a heat-related issue. All that said, Buffalo still had its chances and still marched to a first-and-goal at the 2-yard line with the players they had and couldn’t score.