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NFL Preview - Miami (8-6) at Buffalo (5-9)



By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor

(SportsNetwork.com) - Maybe it's something about the number 10.

On the verge of a fifth consecutive season with at least that many losses, the Buffalo Bills circled the wagons last week and improved to 5-9 with a seven- point defeat of the Jacksonville Jaguars.

They get another chance to avoid double-digits while facing another Florida- based opponent this week, when the Miami Dolphins head to Western New York for a Week 16 game.

Buffalo will be without starting rookie quarterback E.J. Manuel, who won't play thanks to a left knee injury. It's the second time in as many tries that he'll miss a date with the Dolphins - he was held out of the Week 7 game with a right knee problem - and he'll be replaced once again by practice squad signee Thad Lewis.

Lewis was sacked four times, but completed 21-of-32 throws in Miami on the way to a 23-21 win.

It's his fourth start of the season for the Bills, who've started Manuel 10 times, Lewis three times and Jeff Tuel once at QB.

Also absent this week will be Lewis's presumed top target, Stevie Johnson, who'll not play following the death of his mother last week. Johnson caught one ball last week against the Jaguars, the day after she died.

Running backs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson helped the Bills to nearly 200 rushing yards against Jacksonville, and rookie receiver Robert Woods had five catches for 82 yards. Buffalo forced four turnovers against the Jaguars and had three in the initial defeat of the Dolphins.

"We'll look to do whatever we have to do to win because it's critical for us to win," coach Doug Marrone said. "And I think when you win, you learn a lot from that."

As for Miami, the motivation is more obvious.

The Dolphins have won three straight games to reinsert themselves into the playoff picture, and they can clinch a spot simply by winning their final two games - this weekend and next week at home against the New York Jets.

Miami enters this week in the AFC's No. 7 spot - and officially out of the playoffs - but they could jump past No. 6 Baltimore and clinch right away with a victory and losses by the Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals. Or, the Dolphins would get in simply with a pair of victories at season's end because the Ravens and Bengals play each other in the Week 17 finale and a 10-6 Miami team would be guaranteed to finish higher than whichever of the two lost the final game.

Either way, it's a long trip back for a team that was written off in the middle of the bullying scandal that cost them reputation, in addition to starting linemen Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito.

"We are fighters," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said. "We've been through a lot. Guys are tough and are able to handle anything that happens on the field."

A second-year man, Tannehill has led the charge in the three-game recovery phase, completing nearly 65 percent of his throws for 843 yards, eight scores and two interceptions while defeating the Jets and Pittsburgh on the road, alongside visiting New England last week.

Big-ticket free agent Mike Wallace has scored three times in four games and surpassed 100 yards twice, including six catches for 105 versus the Patriots.

The defense has also solidified and it came up with a big play - safety Michael Thomas's interception with seven seconds remaining - to clinch the Week 15 victory. Miami kept Buffalo to just 268 total yards in the Week 7 encounter, but managed only 293 of its own and fell victim to a pair of Tannehill interceptions - including a pick-6 from the Bills' Nickell Robey.

Ultimately, ex-Dolphin kicker Dan Carpenter won the game for his new team, kicking his decisive fourth field goal with 33 seconds left.

"Every game is important, and certainly this one coming up against the Buffalo Bills is very important," said coach Joe Philbin, whose team can complete its first unbeaten December road slate since 2008. "We've attempted to approach each and every game the same way. We're going to take a look at obviously what (Buffalo did) the first time."

WHAT TO WATCH FOR

Swimming Against the Tide

The Dolphins have been on the overall short end of the head-to-head stick against the Bills since the late 1980s, but they've rallied late - especially on the road - in December, and haven't lost in Western New York in the year's last month since 2007.

Big Money Payoff

Defensive end Mario Williams, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, is just 2 1/2 sacks away from surpassing his career-best mark of 14 in 2007. He had two sacks and a forced fumble in his last game against Miami in October, and the Bills lead the league in sacks with 49.

OVERALL ANALYSIS

Tannehill is a warm-weather Texas A&M product, but he proved his cold-weather chops with a snowy defeat of the Steelers in Week 14 and should be ready to produce again in a game that means light years more to his team's fate.

The Buffalo faithful is always pumped up to face the Dolphins, but Miami - especially in the absence of Johnson and Manuel - has too much to lose.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Dolphins 20, Bills 7

12/19 12:00:56 ET

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