NFL Preview - Buffalo (3-10) at Miami (7-6)
By Scott Garbarini, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - South Florida is a nice place to visit this time of year, a statement opponents of the Miami Dolphins over the course of this 2010 campaign would concur.
Miami will attempt to reverse its inexplicable season-long struggles at home, as well as keep its flickering playoff hopes alive, in this Sunday's battle with the fellow AFC East member Buffalo Bills from Sun Life Stadium.
The Dolphins have established themselves as one of the NFL's best road teams this year, prevailing in six of seven games held in enemy venues, but it's been a much different story in their own building. Miami is just 1-5 at Sun Life Stadium so far in 2010, with the lone victory a 29-17 decision over the downward-trending Tennessee Titans in Week 10.
That inability to hold serve may have cost the Dolphins a chance at the postseason. Already eliminated from contention for an AFC East title, Miami enters the regular-season's final three weeks two games behind both Baltimore and the New York Jets for the conference's two Wild Card spots. The club must also jump over San Diego (8-6) and Indianapolis (7-6), both of which have better records in AFC play than the Dolphins right now.
Miami was able to at least remain a part of the equation, however, by putting forth yet another positive result on the road last week. Backed by the latest strong effort from their formidable defense, the Dolphins handed the rival Jets a 10-6 loss at a rain-drenched New Meadowlands Stadium in a clear must-win situation.
The Dolphins held New York to 280 total yards and sacked quarterback Mark Sanchez six times while forcing a pair of turnovers out of the young triggerman. It's the fifth straight time the defense has surrendered under 300 yards, and the unit has allowed just 13.8 points during that stretch.
Miami was able to overcome a woeful performance from its own offense in Sunday's triumph. The Dolphins mustered a meager 131 yards and six first downs against the Jets, with quarterback Chad Henne completing only 5-of-18 passes for 55 yards and losing two fumbles in the soggy conditions.
The Dolphins limited the Bills to a paltry 166 total yards and nine first downs in a 15-10 triumph at Buffalo in the season opener, the first of eight straight defeats for the Bills to begin the year.
Buffalo has hardly been a pushover as of late, however, winning three of five contests since its awful start and displaying noticeable progress on offense under quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, who wasn't under center for the team's Week 1 setback.
Running back Fred Jackson has played a part in the Bills' upturn as well, with the fourth-year pro surpassing the 100-yard rushing mark in three of the past five weeks. He compiled 112 yards on a season-high 29 carries in last Sunday's 13-6 home verdict over Cleveland, supporting a rare shutdown display from a usually-troublesome Buffalo defense that yielded a scant 187 total yards and came up with three turnovers.
The Bills will be out to improve upon an unwanted 1-5 season road record in Sunday's tilt, with their only win as the guest coming against AFC bottom- feeder Cincinnati on Nov. 21.
Miami leads the all-time regular season series with Buffalo, 53-35-1, following the previously-noted 15-10 triumph at Ralph Wilson Stadium in this year's season opener. The Dolphins also dealt the Bills a 38-10 defeat at Sun Life Stadium last year and have won the last two meetings held in Miami, with Buffalo prevailing in road tests in both 2006 and 2007. Miami last swept a home-and-home set from the Bills in 2008, which included a victory at Toronto's Rogers Centre.
Though the Dolphins lead the regular-season series, the Bills hold a 3-1 edge in postseason games between the clubs. Buffalo defeated Miami in a 1990 AFC Divisional Playoff, the 1992 AFC Championship, and a 1995 AFC First-Round Playoff, while the Dolphins were winners in a 1998 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Miami head coach Tony Sparano is 4-1 lifetime against the Bills, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey owns a 1-1 career mark versus the Dolphins and lost his only head-to-head meeting with Sparano in Week 11. Gailey bested Miami on Thanksgiving Day of the 1999 season while then the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A productive day from Jackson (775 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 7 total TD) usually means a good one for his team, as all three of Buffalo's 2010 wins have come when the running back has rushed for over 100 yards. He's clearly emerged as the go-to guy of what had been a backfield-by-committee approach early in the season, and along with young wide receiver Stevie Johnson (66 receptions, 874 yards, 9 TD), gives the Bills two quality weapons the Dolphins will need to account for. A pass-catching corps that wasn't deep to begin with was dealt a tough blow in the Cleveland win, with veteran wideout Lee Evans (37 receptions, 4 TD) sustaining a serious ankle sprain that landed him on injured reserve. Buffalo will try to fill the void by placing greater responsibility upon undrafted rookies David Nelson (28 receptions, 2 TD) and Donald Jones (12 receptions, 1 TD), both of whom will need to step up and prevent Miami from focusing solely on Johnson. Fitzpatrick (2526 passing yards, 21 TD, 11 INT) has been a serviceable starter since supplanting the since-released Trent Edwards in the season's third game, having thrown at least one touchdown pass in each of his 11 outings and supplying an added dimension with his above-average mobility. The Harvard product's 236 rushing yards are fourth-most among quarterbacks this year.
Buffalo's improved running game will face a stern challenge from a Miami stop unit that's been rock-solid in defending that aspect in recent times. The Dolphins held Oakland's potent ground attack to a minuscule 16 yards in a Week 12 win, while the Jets managed just 87 yards on 31 rush attempts against a front seven led by inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (92 tackles, 3 sacks) and Channing Crowder (30 tackles) and sturdy end Kendall Langford (39 tackles, 3 sacks). The Bills will want to avoid being in obvious passing situations, as Miami possesses the NFL's current sack leader in disruptive outside linebacker Cameron Wake (49 tackles, 14 sacks). The former CFL star has racked up 5 1/2 sacks over the last four games after recording two more against the Jets, and he's a big reason why opposing quarterbacks have completed just 57 percent of their throws on the Dolphins. The play of second-year cornerbacks Vontae Davis (47 tackles, 1 INT, 9 PD) and Sean Smith (45 tackles, 1 INT, 8 PD) has certainly helped as well, and the pair was credited with six passes defensed in last week's win. For the year Miami is permitting just 299.2 total yards per game, the fifth-lowest sum in the league.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Expect Miami to go run-heavy on Sunday in the hopes that running backs Ronnie Brown (644 rushing yards, 3 TD, 23 receptions) and Ricky Williams (578 rushing yards, 12 receptions, 3 total TD) can reprise their season-opening showing against the Bills. The duo combined for 137 rushing yards and a touchdown on 31 carries in that game, and the Dolphins are 5-0 this season when they gain 120 or more yards on the ground in 2010. That philosophy would also help offset a prolonged slump from Henne (2676 passing yards, 13 TD, 15 INT), whose anemic output versus the Jets came one week after the 25-year-old threw three costly interceptions in a three-point home loss to Cleveland. He did get his top target back for last Sunday's win, with physical receiver Brandon Marshall (60 receptions, 2 TD) returning from a two-week absence due to a hamstring injury, and the offseason acquisition did score the game's only touchdown against New York. Fellow wideout Brian Hartline (43 receptions, 1 TD) is done for the year with a broken finger, however, meaning sure-handed slot man Davone Bess (62 receptions, 3 TD) and tight end Anthony Fasano (34 receptions, 4 TD) will be asked for increased roles in the rare times Miami does decide to pass.
Running the ball hasn't been much of a problem for teams competing against the Bills, who rank dead last in the NFL in rushing defense (165.6 ypg) and have given up 200 or more yards on the ground six times this year. The team is coming off an effective performance in that area last week, however, with inside linebackers Paul Posluszny (120 tackles, 2 sacks) and Akin Ayodele (72 tackles) and safety Donte Whitner (116 tackles, 1 INT) spearheading a charge that held Cleveland to 105 rushing yards and caused five fumbles on the day. Buffalo snared four interceptions of Minnesota quarterbacks, including a pair by cornerback Drayton Florence (44 tackles, 3 INT, 12 PD), in a loss to the Vikings the previous week, while rookie Arthur Moats (21 tackles, 1.5 sacks) earned a place in history with a crushing hit on Brett Favre that would later end the legendary signal-caller's epic streak of 297 consecutive games played. Rushing the passer hasn't been the Bills' strength, however, as the team enters Sunday's meeting with the fourth-lowest sack total (22) in the league.
This game may be held in the warm climate of South Florida, but it'll likely be played more like one in a frigid Buffalo winter the way these teams will take to the run on Sunday. Jackson is on a major roll right now and should be locked into weekly lineups, though optimism is somewhat tempered in a matchup with a tough Miami defense, while the Dolphins figure to roll with Brown and Williams enough that both backs warrant starting consideration. Johnson is the lone Bills receiver worth a look, with Fitzpatrick a lukewarm play at best at the quarterback position. Henne should not be use under any circumstances at the moment, and his struggles deflate the value of both Marshall and Best as well. Definitely plug in Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter, who's second in the league with 28 field goals made, and the Miami defense is also a wise selection. Considering how the Dolphins have had issues putting up points, one could do worse than Buffalo's defense this week.
The home-challenged Dolphins seem to have an opponent they can handle in the Bills, who will have a hard time finding the same success running the ball as in weeks past and may not have a sufficient answer to Miami's ground game as well. The Dolphins' struggles at Sun Life Stadium still may behoove one to proceed with caution, however, and Henne's fully capable of giving a game away like he did against the Browns just two weeks back. Look for Miami to lean on its running backs and a defense that's been a stone wall as of late to withstand a considerable challenge from a Buffalo team that continues to play hard in spite of its going-nowhere status.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 19, Bills 17
12/17 09:33:28 ET