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NFL Preview - Miami (5-5) at Buffalo (3-7)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The 2009 season has descended into the abyss for the Buffalo Bills.
On Sunday, when Perry Fewell makes his Ralph Wilson Stadium debut as the team's interim head coach, the 3-7 Bills will be looking to drag the AFC East rival Miami Dolphins down with them.
Miami, which started out 0-3, has rallied to win five of its last seven games and is on the verge of making its December meaningful, if it can get by the Bills in Buffalo for the first time since 2003.
Tony Sparano's club (5-5) is two games back of the New England Patriots (7-3) in the AFC East, and with the Pats set to face the 10-0 Saints on the road Monday night, Miami could get an opportunity to pull even with New England when Bill Belichick's squad visits South Florida next Sunday.
The type of performance the Fins put up in last Thursday's impressive 24-17 win at the Carolina Panthers would be a good place for Sparano and company to start on Sunday.
Just days after being dealt a serious blow when running back Ronnie Brown was lost for the season to a foot injury, Miami appeared no worse for wear as newly-ordained starter Ricky Williams rushed 22 times for 119 yards and two touchdowns on the ground, also catching a pair of balls for 19 yards and another TD out of the backfield.
Meanwhile, second-year quarterback Chad Henne was typically efficient, completing 17-of-29 passes for 172 yards, a touchdown, and no sacks absorbed or turnovers committed on the night.
The Dolphins defense had some trouble slowing the Carolina running game, surrendering 182 yards on the ground, but forced Jake Delhomme into a miserable 19-of-42 passing night. The Fins sacked Delhomme four times, with outside linebacker Joey Porter having the finest night of his otherwise disappointing 2009 season with a pair of sacks.
Given the avalanche of injuries that has befallen the Buffalo Bills offensive line, Porter could be in for another strong performance on Sunday.
The Bills lost two more starting linemen in last week's 18-15 loss to the Jaguars, with rookie Eric Wood suffering a compound leg fracture and fellow guard Seth McKinney being lost for the season with a knee injury. Buffalo previously lost starting tackle Brad Butler to his own knee injury, and another starter, tackle Demetrius Bell, is expected to remain out Sunday with another lingering knee issue.
That situation would not appear to lend itself to Fewell's effort to earn win number one as a head coach, after the defensive coordinator replaced the fired Dick Jauron on an interim basis last week.
The Bills nearly made Fewell's debut a happy one, leading by a 15-10 score for most of the second half, after a 98-yard touchdown pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Terrell Owens early in the third quarter put Buffalo ahead.
But a strong defensive effort by Buffalo for most of the game came unglued in the final minutes, when the Jags reeled off a 12-play, 68-yard drive culminating in a three-yard touchdown pass from David Garrard to Mike Sims- Walker in the final minute.
The Bills advanced as far as the Jacksonville 46-yard line on the ensuing drive, but three straight Fitzpatrick incompletions, followed by an interception on a deep pass attempt to Owens on 4th-and-10, snuffed out the Bills' attempt to send the game into overtime.
Buffalo netted just 40 total yards, with three punts and the interception, on the four drives that followed the TD pass to Owens.
Miami leads the all-time regular season series with Buffalo, 52-34-1, and has won three straight in the series including a 38-10 rout in South Florida in Week 4. The Dolphins completed a two-game sweep of the Bills last season, earning a 25-16 come-from-behind victory at home when the clubs met in Week 8, then going to Toronto to polish off a 16-3 result during Week 14. Prior to 2008, the Bills had won seven of eight in the series, including four straight. Buffalo swept the 2007 home-and-home, including a 38-17 win at Ralph Wilson Stadium. As mentioned, The Dolphins are 0-4 in Buffalo since last winning there in 2003.
Though the Dolphins lead the regular season series, the Bills hold a 3-1 edge in postseason games. 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.
Sparano is 3-0 against the Bills as a head coach, while Fewell will be meeting both Sparano and Miami for the first time as a head man.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Following a week of major speculation concerning how the Dolphins would respond to Brown's injury, Miami went the conventional route, with Williams (677 rushing yards, 20 receptions, 9 TD) assuming a primary role and the team using very few Wildcat-styled gimmicks. Fullback Lousaka Polite (63 rushing yards) and second-string back Lex Hilliard (24 rushing yards) combined for just 10 total touches in the game, while Williams had the ball in his hands 24 times. With Buffalo likely gearing up to stop Williams, who carried 16 times for 85 yards and a touchdown when the teams met in Week 4, Henne (1337 passing yards, 6 TD, 4 INT) might have to put the ball in the air more often on Sunday. Top wideouts Davone Bess (46 receptions) and Greg Camarillo (28 receptions) are likely to be the top targets, and both players will be seeking their first touchdown of 2009. Receivers Brian Hartline (14 receptions, 1 TD) and Ted Ginn (23 receptions, 1 TD), who combined for six catches and 79 yards in Carolina, could also be involved. The Dolphins are fourth in the league in rushing offense (156 yards per game) and 30th in passing (161.2 yards per game), an illustration of the team's preferred mode of travel.
The Bills team attempting to slow Williams ranks next-to-last in the NFL against the run (165.9 yards per game), ahead of only Tampa Bay, and is more depleted in the front seven than when it allowed 250 rushing yards to the Dolphins back in Week 4. Four different Buffalo linebackers are currently on season-ending injured reserve, though last week's LB group of Paul Posluszny (59 tackles, 1 INT), Chris Draft (21 tackles, 1 sack) and converted safety Bryan Scott (47 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT) did a nice job of limiting Maurice Jones-Drew to 66 yards on 25 carries. Posluszny had a game-high 12 tackles in the loss, and defensive tackle Kyle Williams (35 tackles, 1 sack) led the trench unit with five stops. Buffalo is tied for ninth in the league against the pass (200.8 yards per game), and the secondary has been a particular credit to the cause this season. Safeties Jairus Byrd (36 tackles, 8 INT) and George Wilson (66 tackles, 3 INT, 2 sacks) have both been consistent playmakers for Buffalo, and the team could get top cornerback Terrence McGee (37 tackles) back on Sunday after he missed the last two weeks with a knee problem. Wilson had the club's lone interception of Garrard last Sunday, while the rookie Byrd, who leads the NFL in picks, had a record-setting streak of five straight games with an INT snapped. Team sack leader Aaron Schobel (35 tackles, 1 INT) came up with his sixth of the year last Sunday.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
The beleaguered state of the Buffalo offensive line is unlikely to do much to improve the team's standing of 25th in NFL passing offense (173.5 yards per game) and 21st in rushing offense (102.2 yards per game), nor is the shoulder injury that has running back Marshawn Lynch (272 rushing yards, 1 TD, 21 receptions) questionable for Sunday. Up front, the team will rely on players such as newly-signed guard and former Steeler Kendall Simmons, while the backfield could be the sole domain of Fred Jackson (528 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 1 TD). Jackson amassed 291 rushing yards while subbing for a suspended Lynch in Weeks 1-3, but has crossed the 50-yard plateau just once since. Fitzpatrick will get his second straight start at quarterback, and will look to continue the chemistry with Owens (35 receptions, 2 TD) that was on display last week. In addition to the 98-yard pass play, Fitzpatrick connected with Owens eight other times for 99 yards. Former top receiver Lee Evans (28 receptions, 5 TD) had just one catch in the defeat. The athletic Fitzpatrick (659 passing yards, 3 TD, 6 INT) turned the ball over twice and was sacked on two occasions against the Jaguars.
The Dolphins defense will be attempting to exert a similar form of dominance to what was on display against the Bills in Week 4, when Miami limited Buffalo to 10 first downs and finished with six sacks and three interceptions of then- quarterback Trent Edwards. Outside linebacker Jason Taylor (25 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 1 INT) and defensive tackle Randy Starks (33 tackles, 5.5 sacks) have been among the team's most adept pass rushers this season, while Porter's (20 tackles, 4.5 sacks) emergence against the Panthers was a promising sign indeed. Taylor had two-and-a-half sacks of Edwards in the first meeting. Defending Owens and Evans will be rookie corners Vontae Davis (31 tackles, 2 INT) and Sean Smith (30 tackles), with safeties Yeremiah Bell (70 tackles, 1.5 sacks) and Gibril Wilson (64 tackles, 1 sack) - who are 1-2 on the team in tackles - assisting over the top. After struggling a bit against the Carolina rushing attack last week, Miami will be seeking a bounce-back effort that will be made difficult by the season-ending knee injury suffered by nose tackle Jason Ferguson last week. Paul Soliai (11 tackles) will fill Ferguson's spot if he can battle back from an ankle injury, and ends Kendall Langford (23 tackles, 1 sack) and Phillip Merling (22 tackles, 2.5 sacks) will have to help compensate as well. Inside linebackers Akin Ayodele (43 tackles) and Channing Crowder (36 tackles, 1 sack) have been solid for most of the season for a team that is 12th in the NFL against the run (105.9 yards per game).
Owners of Ricky Williams were thrilled with his performance against the Panthers last Thursday, and also had to be happy that he wasn't asked to share carries in the Fins' still-run-centered offense. Against a soft Bills run defense, another big day is in store for the former Heisman winner. There are no other Dolphins worth recommending, perhaps with the exception of solid kicker Dan Carpenter, and given the weakness of Buffalo's offense, the Miami "D" is also a credible play.
Owens had been such a disappointment this season that few owners bothered to put him in their lineups last week, and neither he nor Evans is any better than a high-risk play this week. It might be worth monitoring the injury report, however, in regard to Lynch. If it is clear that he won't play, Jackson could be a good start, since he tends to contribute as a pass-catcher as well. Otherwise, best to steer clear of Buffalo altogether.
Miami physically punished Buffalo when these teams met back in Week 4, and the Dolphins and Bills have continued to head in opposite directions since that contest. Though the Bills will probably play hard for Fewell in his home debut as head coach, there's little reason to expect their run defense to get Miami's offense off the field consistently. On the other side of the ball, an already- shaky offensive line has turned into a sub-NFL-standard group due to injuries, and it's hard to imagine the team moving the football with anything resembling consistency. Look for Miami to end its losing streak in Buffalo at four games, and to improve its standing in the playoff race in advance of a big one against the Patriots.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 26, Bills 10
11/25 15:57:50 ET