NFL Preview - Miami (0-0) at Buffalo (0-0)
By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - There is absolutely nothing unusual about the Buffalo Bills facing off with the Miami Dolphins.
The two longtime AFC East rivals, who will square off for Sunday's regular season opener at Ralph Wilson Stadium, have met at least twice a season, every season, since 1966. Yet both teams enter Week 1 of the 2010 season carrying a healthy dose of the unknown.
The homestanding Bills enter yet another new coaching era, as ex-Cowboys head man and esteemed former NFL offensive coordinator Chan Gailey tries to put the struggling franchise back on the road to success it traveled back in the 1990's. Gailey is the fifth head coach the Bills have employed since Wade Phillips last led the organization to the playoffs in 1999, and the 58-year-old will try to produce the type of consistent results that predecessors Gregg Williams, Mike Mularkey, Dick Jauron and Perry Fewell could not.
It was Jauron who led the Bills into the 2009 campaign, producing just a 3-6 record before his firing gave way to the interim head man Fewell, also the team's defensive coordinator. Fewell, now defensive coordinator with the New York Giants, went 3-4 the rest of the way and could not keep the Bills from a last-place finish in the AFC East.
Gailey has initiated some change since taking the Bills head job in January, with the first-round draft selection of running back C.J. Spiller (Clemson) and the scrapping of the team's 4-3 defense in favor of a 3-4 ranking among the highlights of the team's offseason.
One thing that has not changed in Buffalo is the quarterback situation, however. All three QBs to open games for the Bills in 2009 remain on the roster, with Trent Edwards set to make an opening day start for the third straight year. Edwards was just 2-5 as a starter in '09, but beat out Ryan Fitzpatrick (4-4 in 2009) and Brian Brohm (0-1) for the top job in the 2010 preseason.
Though the Dolphins are not enduring such a high degree of offseason change, the team has made significant alterations in the interests of getting back to their AFC East-winning ways of 2008.
Last year's disappointing 7-9 season elicited some shifts on defense, including a change at coordinator with Paul Pasqualoni swapped out with ex-49ers head coach Mike Nolan. Big names like Joey Porter and Jason Taylor exited the rotation, with a younger mix including free agent linebacker Karlos Dansby and two rookies - defensive lineman Jared Odrick (Penn State) and outside linebacker Koa Misi (Utah) - expected to play key roles this year.
On the other side of the ball, the team brain trust of head coach Tony Sparano, general manager Jeff Ireland and recently-departed vice president Bill Parcells landed a long-sought-after big play threat, dealing for ex-Denver wideout Brandon Marshall and his three consecutive 100-catch seasons.
Miami leads the all-time regular season series with Buffalo, 52-35-1, including a conventional split of last year's home-and-home. The Dolphins engineered a 38-10 rout in South Florida in Week 4 of last season, and the Bills returned the favor with a 31-14 triumph at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Week 12. The latter game marked the first career victory for interim head coach Perry Fewell. The Dolphins swept the 2008 series, beating the Bills in South Florida and at Rogers Centre in Toronto. The Dolphins are 0-5 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 3-1 against the Bills as a head coach, while Buffalo's Gailey was 1-0 against the Dolphins during his tenure as head coach of the Cowboys (1998-99), with the win coming on Thanksgiving Day 1999.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Making his first opening day start will be Miami signal-caller Chad Henne (2878 passing yards, 12 TD, 14 INT), who showed positive flashes during a 2009 campaign that saw him go 7-6 after taking over for veteran Chad Pennington four games into the season. The addition of a bona fide No. 1 receiver in Marshall (101 receptions, 1120 yards, 10 TD with Denver) is expected to assist in Henne's development, and the talented wideout should also free up WRs Davone Bess (76 receptions, 2 TD) and Brian Hartline (31 receptions, 3 TD) along with tight end Anthony Fasano (31 receptions, 2 TD). While the Fins should be more balanced in 2010, they also don't want to ignore a running game that ranked 4th in the NFL a year ago behind the talents of Ricky Williams (1121 rushing yards, 35 receptions, 13 TD) and Ronnie Brown (648 rushing yards, 8 TD, 14 receptions). Brown's 2009 season ended due to a foot injury suffered in mid- November, but he is recovered and expected to once again seize the lead back role. An o-line that allowed 34 sacks a year ago has a couple of new faces at guard, with one-time Bill Richie Incognito on the left side and third-round rookie John Jerry (Ole Miss) on the right.
After struggling to both stop the run and rush the passer at times in 2009, the Bills are shifting to a 3-4 defense that new coordinator George Edwards hopes better suits their personnel. That issue is worth debating, as nose tackle Kyle Williams is a little lighter (306 pounds) than many of his contemporaries around the league and top returning pass rusher Chris Kelsay (62 tackles, 5 sacks) has played virtually his entire career as a 4-3 end. Kelsay, ex-Dolphin Reggie Torbor (29 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT with Miami) and 2009 first-round pick Aaron Maybin (16 tackles) will be asked to attack Henne, with inside linebackers Paul Posluzsny (110 tackles, 3 INT, 1 sack) and newcomer Andra Davis (92 tackles, 3.5 sacks with Denver) trying to limit the effectiveness of the backs. The strength of the Bills defense is in the secondary, though the availability of safety Jairus Byrd (45 tackles, 9 INT), who comes off groin surgery, will be worth monitoring. Terrence McGee (48 tackles, 1 INT) is likely to be responsible for defending Marshall, with fellow corner Drayton Florence (60 tackles, 1 INT) and safety Donte Whitner (57 tackles, 2 INT) also helping out in back.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
A cursory glance at Buffalo's offensive personnel sends out a loud-and-clear signal that this team will be attempting to run the football in 2010. The first-round pick Spiller looked great in the preseason, and his elevation to the top running back spot was effectively secured when holdovers Marshawn Lynch (450 rushing yards, 2 TD, 28 receptions) and usual 2009 starter Fred Jackson (1062 rushing yards, 46 receptions, 4 TD) were sidelined by injuries during training camp. Jackson (hand) and Lynch (ankle) should both be available vs. Miami, but Spiller will be the first man in. When Edwards (1169 passing yards, 6 TD, 7 INT) throws it, wideout Lee Evans (44 receptions, 7 TD) and Steve Johnson (2 receptions) figure to be his most frequent targets. Evans has never missed a game since entering the league in 2004, but Johnson has just 12 career catches and will have to prove he belongs. Jonathan Stupar (6 receptions) is listed as the team's No. 1 tight end, but his greatest value will be as a blocker on a paper-thin offensive line. Key components up front are left tackle Demetrius Bell, who has just eight career starts, and right guard Eric Wood, who missed the final six games of 2009 with a gruesome broken leg.
Miami finished bottom-half of the league in most defensive categories in 2009, and the strength of the unit - the pass rush - is a work in progress after losing its top sack artists (Porter, Taylor) of a year ago. The pressure off the edge will now come from the rookie Misi and the equally promising Cameron Wake (23 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Their efforts will impact the effectiveness of a couple of former first-round corners, Vontae Davis (52 tackles, 4 INT) and Jason Allen (22 tackles). Safeties Yeremiah Bell (114 tackles, 3 INT, 1.5 sacks) and Chris Clemons (13 tackles) are both holdovers. A couple of key new faces in the front seven - Dansby (109 tackles, 1 INT, 1 sack with Arizona) and the rookie Odrick - will help determine how Spiller fares on his first meaningful day of NFL work. Dansby will line up along the inside next to Channing Crowder (51 tackles, 1 sack, 1 INT), the lone starting holdover from the 2009 linebacking corps. Nose tackle Randy Starks (56 tackles, 7 sacks) is a multi-talented presence up the middle.
This game won't be the most significant one on the radar screen of fantasy enthusiasts in Week 1, but there are a couple of worthwhile considerations on both sides. For Miami, Brown and Williams combined for 21 touchdowns last year, and should both contribute something even if they siphon carries away from one another. Likewise, the Bills' Spiller will probably cede some rushes to Jackson and/or Lynch, but the rookie's presence as the No. 1 back makes him an intriguing fantasy option. Another possible starter is Evans, who put together the lowest reception and yardage totals of his career last year but is back in the No. 1 receiver role following Terrell Owens' departure. The Miami defense and kicker Dan Carpenter (25-28 FG last year) will start in some leagues.
The Dolphins' profile in the AFC East has been dwarfed by those of the Jets and Patriots this offseason, and probably unfairly. After all, Miami was 3-1 against those teams (including a sweep of the Jets) last year, and actually had a stretch of 7-3 football at one stage before falling apart around Christmastime. With a second-year starting QB expected to take a step forward, a new explosive weapon in Marshall, and a new energy on defense thanks to Nolan and Dansby, the Dolphins could be a team folks are talking about very soon. They won't necessarily look their best in a Week 1 road game against a determined Buffalo team, but will launch their 2010 campaign with a victory against a Bills club that has less talent than the Dolphins across the board.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 17, Bills 12
09/09 11:23:23 ET