The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins, two AFC East inhabitants who will square off Sunday at Sun Life Stadium, are each perfect examples of how quickly momentum can shift over the course of an NFL season.
Nearly six weeks ago, the Bills were sitting at 4-1 and appeared to have stamped themselves as serious postseason contenders after years of toiling in the league's bottom tier. But three losses over a subsequent four-game stretch have cooled that playoff talk, and Buffalo resembled anything but a contender in a 44-7 lambasting by the Dallas Cowboys last Sunday that opened up a critical stretch of three consecutive road tests.
Miami, on the other hand, had been looming as the front-runners for the coveted No. 1 overall pick in next year's draft after dropping their first seven games of this 2011 campaign. The Dolphins have since been able to bounce back strongly, however, by registering impressive victories over Kansas City and Washington to enter Sunday's divisional clash with a head of steam.
The Dolphins have looked sharp in virtually all faces during their winning streak. Quarterback Matt Moore turned in solid performances in both games, while a defense that was among the league's most submissive early on has stiffened as of late, having not yielded a touchdown in either of Miami's two recent triumphs.
"I felt like now we've [been] kind of finding our identity and guys are becoming more comfortable with the team, the offense, the defense, everything," said Dolphins running back Reggie Bush, who contributed a pair of touchdowns to last week's 20-9 verdict over the Redskins that halted a string of seven straight home losses for Miami.
The Dolphins will be shooting to win three games in succession for the first time since coming out on top in five consecutive contests to close out the 2008 regular season, a year in which the club finished 11-5 and last reached the playoffs.
Buffalo's postseason drought has been considerably longer, having failed to qualify every year since 1999, and the Bills have put themselves more in a position towards extending that dubious stretch with their struggles over the past two weeks.
An offense that was one of the NFL's highest-scoring units during the team's 5-2 start has been shut down in back-to-back games, mustering just 287 total yards in a 27-11 home setback to the New York Jets in Week 9 before gaining 271 in the debacle in Dallas. Buffalo has also turned the ball over a combined seven times in those two defeats.
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick has thrown five interceptions and managed only 337 passing yards in the losses, which came shortly after he signed a six-year, $59 million contract extension in late October.
The Bills were also gashed for 163 rushing yards and 433 total yards by the Cowboys and enter this week ranked 29th overall in total defense.
"Something has to be done," said Buffalo outside linebacker Danny Batten. "We have to respond, rally and win some games. We have no choice. We have worked too hard to go 5-11. We know what that feels like. We have to rally, keep working, work harder, whatever it is."
Despite their present skid, the Bills still remain in the hunt for a playoff spot, trailing New England by one game for first place in the AFC East at the moment and also behind both Baltimore and Cincinnati by the same margin in the race for the conference's two Wild Card berths.
Buffalo has lost its last three outings on the road as well, but did best the Dolphins by a 17-14 score at Sun Life Stadium in December of last season behind a pair of Fitzpatrick touchdown passes.
Miami is just 2-12 over its past 14 home tilts and hasn't won consecutive games at Sun Life Stadium since Nov. 15-Dec. 6, 2009.
Miami leads its all-time regular-season series with Buffalo by a 53-36-1 count, with the teams having split the annual home-and-home set in each of the past two seasons. As previously noted, the Bills prevailed at Sun Life Stadium during Week 15 of last year to avenge a 15-10 home loss to the Dolphins in the 2010 opener, and have left with a victory in three of their last five stops in Miami. The Dolphins did defeat Buffalo at home in 2008 (25-16) and 2009 (38-10), however.
The Bills do own a 3-1 edge in postseason games played between the clubs, having topped Miami in a 1990 AFC Divisional Playoff and a 1995 First-Round matchup, both of which were held in Buffalo, and handing the Dolphins a 29-10 loss at Ralph Wilson Stadium in the 1992 AFC Championship. Miami produced a 24-17 home win over the Bills in a 1998 AFC First-Round Playoff.
Miami head coach Tony Sparano is 4-2 lifetime against the Bills, while Buffalo's Chan Gailey owns a 2-1 career mark versus the Dolphins and is 1-1 in head-to-head bouts with Sparano. Gailey's other win over Miami occurred on Thanksgiving Day of the 1999 season while then in charge of the Dallas Cowboys.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
The Buffalo offense comes into Sunday's meeting in a slump, having generated its two lowest-scoring outputs of the season in the losses to the Jets and Cowboys and amassing under 300 total yards in both games. Part of the team's problems can be traced to Fitzpatrick (2076 passing yards, 16 TD, 12 INT), whose accuracy has tailed off over that period while his turnover totals have risen noticeably. The cerebral quarterback has been intercepted eight times over his last four outings after tossing only four picks through the first five weeks, and he's completed just 56.5 percent of this attempts during this losing streak. The Bills continue to get excellent production out of running back Fred Jackson (917 rushing yards, 6 TD, 34 receptions), however, as the NFL's current rushing leader notched his sixth 100-yard effort of the year by compiling 114 yards on 13 carries against Dallas and also gives Fitzpatrick a reliable outlet as a receiver. Buffalo is sixth overall in rushing offense (135.0 ypg) and may lean on its strong ground game this week considering Fitzpatrick's recent funk and injuries to top receiver Stevie Johnson (44 receptions, 4 TD) and across an offensive line that's allowed just 10 sacks this season, the lowest number in the league. While Johnson is still expected to play this week despite hurting his shoulder in the Dallas game, valued center Eric Wood was placed on injured reserve Tuesday after tearing his ACL last weekend. Versatile Andy Levitre, who's drawn starts at both left guard and left tackle, will shift into Wood's post while rookie Chris Hairston now assumes the role of Fitzpatrick's blindside protector.
While the Bills have had trouble putting up points over the last two weeks, a resurgent Miami defense has been incredibly stingy at giving them up during that same stretch of games. The Dolphins have yielded a mere four field goals in their wins over the Chiefs and Redskins and are surrendering a minuscule 12.5 points in their last four tests, while the 246 total yards the unit permitted against Washington was a season low. Miami has also been tough against the run, ranking 10th overall in that category (105.1 ypg) and allowing just 78.3 rushing yards over a three-game span heading into this week, and the formidable inside linebacker duo of Karlos Dansby (62 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (53 tackles, 1.5 sacks) that works behind massive nose tackles Paul Soliai (17 tackles) should pose a challenge to Jackson. The defense has also come up with eight sacks during the team's win streak, with 2010 first-round selection Jared Odrick (12 tackles, 3 sacks, 1 INT) having netted one in back-to-back games from his end spot to help complement Pro Bowl outside linebacker Cameron Wake (21 tackles, 5.5 sacks). Stopping opposing quarterbacks has still been an issue, however, as the Dolphins stand 27th in pass efficiency defense and had a scant two interceptions for the season before picking off the Redskins' Rex Grossman twice last week.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
An upgraded running game and better play out of Moore (1159 passing yards, 4 TD, 5 INT) have triggered an overall improvement from the Miami offense over the past few weeks, and it's shown in the team's results. The stand-in quarterback has hit on a sharp 71.2 percent of his throws and recorded a 3-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the Dolphins' two wins while developing a chemistry with dangerous wide receiver Brandon Marshall (53 receptions, 742 yards, 2 TD), and Bush (474 rushing yards, 28 receptions, 4 total TD) has also been able to find a groove while cementing himself as the feature back. The offseason acquisition is averaging a healthy 5.8 yards per carry the past three weeks while working in a timeshare with rookie Daniel Thomas (356 rushing yards, 7 receptions, 1 TD), and is an accomplished receiver as well. Marshall has accumulated 15 receptions totaling 204 yards during the win streak and was a handful for the Bills in the teams' last showdown, snaring 11 passes for 106 yards and a touchdown in that loss. Tight end Anthony Fasano (15 receptions, 3 TD) has been more of a factor as a pass-catcher as well as of late and should play on Sunday despite missing some practice time with a sore ankle. Miami is just 30th in the league in third-down conversions (30.1 percent), but made good on 8-of-14 tries in those situations in the Washington game.
The Dolphins appear to have a reasonable chance of another effective offensive display this week, as Buffalo has allowed over 400 total yards in six of its nine games this season and came up well short in its attempts to slow down the Cowboys a week ago. Dallas quarterback Tony Romo completed 23-of-26 passes and threw for three touchdowns on a secondary that's given up the sixth-most yards through the air (261.4 ypg) in 2011, while the pass rush has been lacking virtually all year. The Bills have managed just 15 sacks thus far, and 10 of them came in a blowout win over hapless Washington in Week 8, and promising rookie lineman Marcell Dareus (26 tackles, 3.5 sacks) is the only player on the roster with more than two. Buffalo does rank among the league leaders with 20 takeaways and has snared 15 interceptions, but has forced only four turnovers over its last four outings after a remarkably opportunistic showing early in the season. Compounding matters is a shoulder injury to strong safety George Wilson (79 tackles, 4 INT, 6 PD), the club's leader in tackles and picks, that will likely have him questionable for Sunday. Along with Dareus and inside linebacker Nick Barnett (71 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT), he's one of the key stoppers for a shaky run defense that's given up 289 yards on the ground over the past two weeks.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The turnover battle. The Bills were sensational at inducing mistakes out of the opposition during their 4-1 surge out of the gates, piling up 16 takeaways while delivering a plus-11 turnover ratio over that stretch. In four games since, however, they're minus-seven in that category and come up with only four turnovers. For Miami, creating miscues has been a season-long quandary, as the Dolphins' six takeaways on the season are tied for the fewest in the NFL, and an overall minus-eight turnover margin is a big reason why they're 2-7.
Red-zone efficiency. Buffalo has been one of the NFL's better teams at converting inside the 20-yard line, having scored touchdowns on 61.3 percent of such possessions, but the Dolphins have allowed an opponent to reach the end zone on just 1-of-8 drives over their last four games. In contrast, Miami's offense and Buffalo's defense have each been well below the league average within the red zone. In what shapes up to be a close contest, how each team fares in this all-important area could ultimately determine the outcome.
Fitzpatrick. The Bills have often gone as far as he's been able to take them this season, and the numbers back that statement up. When the Buffalo quarterback has registered a passer rating of 89 or better, the team has won every time. When he's been below that standard, the Bills are 0-4. The Dolphins haven't been great against defending the pass, so there should be opportunities for success, but Fitzpatrick's got to play better than he has the last two weeks for Buffalo to win.
The Dolphins have clearly been the more sharp of these two teams over the past two weeks, though their positive results should be taken with a grain of salt. The Chiefs and Redskins have been two of the league's worst offenses this season, and a balanced Buffalo unit will likely be a sterner test for the Miami defense than what it's just had to face. The Bills also haven't lost to an opponent under .500 this year, having gone 3-0 in such matchups, and the turnover issues that have plagued them in their last two losses may be solved by the Dolphins' alarming inability to create any. While the way these AFC East squads have been trending is an obvious plus for Miami, Buffalo has put together a better overall body of work and has shown it can be resilient.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Bills 24, Dolphins 21