- WHERE: Highmark Stadium (Orchard Park, N.Y.)
- WHEN: 1 p.m. ET | CBS
- READ: Dolphins-Bills injury report
- READ: MIA to start rookie QB; Teddy questionable
- READ: Gregg Rosenthal's Super Wild Card Weekend game picks
If the Miami Dolphins are going to win their first playoff game since the 2000 season, they’re going to have to do it without their starting quarterback.
Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel announced on Wednesday that Tua Tagovailoa (concussion) will not be cleared prior to the Buffalo Bills hosting the Dolphins on Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium. With backup QB Teddy Bridgewater recovering from a dislocated finger on his throwing hand, seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson will make his first-career playoff start.
Thompson has started two games this season. Bills star Josh Allen will be starting his seventh career postseason game Sunday.
These teams’ two meetings this season both came down to the final play. Allen and the Bills couldn’t spike the ball quickly enough at game’s end in the first meeting in Week 3 to pull off the late comeback. In the Week 15 rematch, the Bills erased a nine-point deficit in the final nine-plus minutes to win in Buffalo on Tyler Bass’ game-winning field goal.
Tagovailoa, however, started both of those games, throwing for 420 yards and three TDs in about six quarters of action combined. Can Thompson match that level of efficiency on the road in what is sure to be an emotional setting? That’s the biggest question by far for Miami -- and a big reason why the Bills are considered significant favorites in their third meeting of the season.
Here are five things to watch for when the Dolphins visit the Bills on Sunday during Super Wild Card Weekend:
- Skylar’s the limit. Thompson first caught the eye of Dolphins fans in the preseason, when he completed 75% of his passes and threw for five TDs and zero picks. It appeared this was no ordinary seventh-rounder, as the 25-year-old rookie looked the part after a college career that included 41 starts. However, some of the luster began to wear off when Thompson was thrust into action against the Jets in Week 5 when Bridgewater exited early. Thompson was fairly accurate early but fell apart as the game went on, throwing one interception, taking two sacks and losing a fumble. In his first start the next week, Thompson had a few moments early against the Vikings but was knocked out of the game with a hand injury. Thompson’s second start against the Jets in Week 18 likely served as a playoff dress rehearsal, as it turned out. He made some eye-opening plays and led Miami to a win, but the Dolphins only scored nine points, and Thompson still left some meat on the bone with his play. Asking Thompson to win this game feels foolish, but McDaniel appears to have some measure of faith in his mature rookie QB, and Thompson at least has flashed a bit more playmaking ability in his later-season appearances, even if his turnovers (three picks, two turnovers in 211 snaps) are a bit concerning.
- How can Miami slow down Josh Allen? Even with Miami’s early-season win over the Bills, Allen has not had trouble producing against the Dolphins in recent meetings. In his past four games against them, Allen has thrown for 1,132 yards, 10 TDs and only one interception, while also running for 214 yards, one TD and a two-point conversion. He’s also been lights out in his past three home playoff games: 70 of 97 passing (72.1%) for 838 yards, eight TDs and zero interceptions with plus 113 rush yards and an additional TD. But Miami also has kept both games close against the Bills this season, with big plays on defense being a big reason why. The Dolphins sacked Allen six times and forced him to fumble five times in two games. That’s a start, but if they’re going to beat the Bills with Thompson, the Dolphins must convert more of those into turnovers. Stealing possessions has been a problem all season for Miami, with only 14 (eight INTs, six fumbles recovered) on the season, the second-fewest in the league in 2022. Allen turned the ball 19 times this season, with six coming in the team’s three losses. The Dolphins blitzed the Bills often in the first meeting but far less so in the second. We could see a return to a higher blitz rate in this one. Stopping Allen completely isn’t likely. But as the first meeting showed, with the Bills dominating time of possession and having the ball at game’s end, that might not be a required pathway to victory. Turnovers, sacks and red-zone stands might be the most crucial factor.
- Dolphins’ run game could hold key to success. Miami’s run game was stuck in a three-game rut prior to the Week 15 meeting against the Bills. Struggling against a top-tier defense such as the 49ers wasn’t the concern; failing to do much on the ground against the likes of the Texans and Chargers was the issue at the time. But the Dolphins almost had their way against the Bills in that meeting, running 25 times for 188 yards, with Raheem Mostert (17-136-0 rushing) and Salvon Ahmed (6-43-1) the biggest contributors. It was a vast departure from the first meeting in Miami, where the Dolphins totaled a mere 41 yards on 17 carries, a long run of 9 yards as Mostert (8-11-0) was bottled up. The Bills even committed extra defenders to the box in that last meeting, but they were primarily in nickel defense, with smaller bodies populating the trenches. Miami outflanked them more than once with outside-zone runs and generated second-level opportunities. Mostert, however, is now dealing with a broken thumb suffered in Week 18 and has been ruled out. The task of running with the level of success Miami enjoyed in Week 15 will be tougher with Mostert sidelined, especially if the Bills don’t respect Thompson and Miami’s speed at receiver.
- Bills secondary still has a challenge on its hands. It’s easy to dismiss the rookie Thompson and give the edge to the Bills in this game. But we can’t overlook some back-end struggles that have plagued Buffalo this season, and those could loom large in a game with two of the NFL’s best game breakers. Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle both are elite speed threats who can beat you over the top or catch a short pass and take it the distance at any time. The Bills know all about Hill, who has run roughshod over them in two past playoff games with the Chiefs (20 catches, 322 yards, TD). But this season, it has been Waddle who has presented the most problems for them. Waddle gained the most receiving yards of any opponent against Buffalo this season with 216, doing so on only seven catches. Those included grabs of 67, 45, 32 and 32 yards. The Bills went zone-heavy in the first meeting and opted for more man-coverage looks in the second game, although neither approach worked tremendously. However, Waddle (ankle) was limited at practice on Wednesday. If healthy, Waddle and Hill can still be thorns in the Bills’ sides, even with the questions at quarterback. Look for Miami to get the ball into their hands in various ways whenever possible. The Bills’ shorthanded secondary will need to be assignment-sound, try to get population to the ball and tackle effectively in open spaces.
- Can the Bills keep riding the emotional high? There had never a moment quiet like what the Bills experienced on Jan. 2, when safety Damar Hamlin suffered a cardiac arrest during a game against Cincinnati. Through the days that followed, as Hamlin showed encouraging signs of improvement in his recovery, the Bills and the NFL at large appeared to bond together with rare solidarity. Then, in the most improbable moment imaginable, Nyheim Hines ran back the opening kickoff of the Bills’ first game since the incident, which helped fuel a stirring Week 18 win over the Patriots at Highmark Stadium. Now that Hamlin is back in Buffalo and has been discharged from a local hospital, the Bills’ players can try to focus their energies on the task at hand with Miami. That might bring some relief after a trying week-plus. However, we can’t forget the emotional rollercoaster the Bills have been on and the toll it might have exacted. It has been a long season in Buffalo, one that began dedicated to atoning for last year’s “13 seconds” playoff loss to the Chiefs in the Divisional Round. It will continue with a different focus after Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, and the Bills will need all their mental toughness and focus to navigate a stacked AFC field and a tough opening matchup.