ORCHARD PARK, N.Y.—The Dolphins’ stunning upset of the Patriots on national television was the thrill of the season. This was the opposite.
Miami fell flat with a demoralizing letdown against the Bills, trailing the entire afternoon in a 24-16 loss at New Era Field on Sunday. That destroyed the sudden playoff hope created by last week’s victory and leaves the Dolphins with little more to play for than pride in the final two games of the season.
Here are five takeaways from the dreary defeat at Buffalo:
1. If the Dolphins are going to grow into a real contender, the first step is getting past the Bills.
Forget the Patriots. It’s been a long time since Miami was decisively better than the Bills. The Dolphins dominated them head-to-head and in the standings in 2008, but since then Miami has won exactly five more games than Buffalo and gone 8-9 in the series.
Buffalo remains in the No. 6 seed in the AFC and is well-positioned to be better next season with a healthy chunk of salary cap space and four picks in the first two rounds of the draft. Also, it’s always going to be freezing here in December. Neither of these problems looks like it’s going away.
2. LeSean McCoy will make anyone rethink the value of a great running back.
It’s easy to treat running backs as disposable in the modern era, but this guy is special. He’s worth the $10 million he’s getting this year. The Dolphins knew that coming in, so much so that defensive coordinator Matt Burke guaranteed there would be missed tackles, and he confirmed it for them all over the field.
What makes him so dominant isn’t his speed or his muscle, but rather that he can start and stop and redirect like someone’s operating him with a video game controller. The Dolphins handled him reasonably well early, but he got rolling in the second quarter and hit them with 96 total yards and two touchdowns.
3. Kenyan Drake is the right man for the job as Dolphins look to 2018.
There were whispers of tanking when Miami unloaded Jay Ajayi for a fourth-round pick in October, but it’s become clearer each week that coach Adam Gase had a vision of a speedier, more versatile backfield with Drake and Damien Williams.
Drake’s gotten the starring role all to himself the past few weeks with Williams injured and he’s proven the Dolphins will be in good shape at the position going into next season. After 334 yards of total offense against the Broncos and Patriots, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry in the Buffalo game. Unfortunately for Drake, Miami was down big much of the game and didn’t get him many carries in the second half.
4. The Miami defense doesn’t need another overhaul, but there are still holes.
The Dolphins thought they fixed many of their defensive issues in the recent offseason, but some of the solutions haven’t held up. This defense is middle of the pack in nearly every category, and that only works if the offense is a fireworks show.
The biggest problem this year is Miami’s continually been torched in the passing game, regardless of who’s playing quarterback for the opposition. Tyrod Taylor, who was benched earlier this season, was the latest to have his way with the Dolphins, going 17 of 29 for 224 yards and a touchdown for a 94.6 passer rating. He’d topped that number in just five of his 12 previous games this year.
5. The playoffs are out of the picture. Now what?
The Dolphins might not be mathematically eliminated yet, but there’s no realistic chance of them cracking the playoff field now. That leaves them two games—at Kansas City, then home against the Bills—to finish out the season with nothing meaningful at stake.
So why watch? It’s a good chance to see what some of the young talent, especially rookie defensive end Charles Harris, can do in bigger roles. Harris started in place of Andre Branch (knee injury) against the Bills, and perhaps the Dolphins will consider finishing the year that way so Harris can get valuable snaps. There’s also still a chance of reaching 8-8, which won’t count for anything in the standings but would be a respectable finish after everything that’s gone wrong this year.
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