A brutal beginning to this 2011 season ultimately cost Tony Sparano his job as the Miami Dolphins' head coach. His successor may have the opportunity to get his tenure off to a significantly better start.
Todd Bowles makes his debut as the Dolphins' interim sideline boss when Miami invades Ralph Wilson Stadium to take on the still-stumbling Buffalo Bills in a late-season clash between AFC East inhabitants that have both played their way out of the postseason picture.
Sparano's days had been long rumored to be numbered when the Dolphins lost their first seven outings of a 2011 campaign in which he needed to win to retain his post, and the final straw came after the team assured itself a third consecutive losing season with this past Sunday's 26-10 home setback to Philadelphia. He was relieved of his duties two days later, with Bowles promoted from his position as secondary coach to take over for the final three contests.
Miami had experienced a turnaround of sorts prior to facing the Eagles, recording four victories in a five-game span that including a 35-8 thrashing of the Bills on Nov. 20. All of those wins came by 11 points or more, with the lone blemish during that stretch a last-second 20-19 defeat to NFC East co- leader Dallas on Thanksgiving.
Bowles, who played eight seasons in the NFL as a safety from 1986-1993 and had been on the Dolphins' staff since Sparano's arrival in 2008, isn't considered to be a top candidate for the permanent assignment, with owner Stephen Ross believed to be targeting a big-name coach for box-office appeal, and insists he won't be using the remaining three tests to audition himself for the future.
"We have three games left," he stated. "It's not really about me. It's just trying to keep the team afloat and making sure everybody plays hard and try to win three ball games. I'm a coach; I understand the conversations and the businesses very well. Whatever happens to me after that happens."
Buffalo is going through a period of turmoil of its own, having dropped six consecutive matchups after an encouraging 5-2 record out of the chute brought about visions of a possible playoff run. The Bills have been considerably outplayed for most of the slide, being outscored by a troubling 194-77 margin during that time frame.
"To start off 5-2 and playing good football and the last six weeks we haven't played good football. It's gone away," said quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick. "We've just gotta find a way to regain that."
Fitzpatrick has had a hand in Buffalo's demise, having thrown nine interceptions and completing under 56 percent of his attempts over the six losses. He was picked off twice while hitting on a poor 13-of-34 passes in the Bills' 37-10 dressing-down by San Diego last week.
The well-traveled signal-caller also had a pair of interceptions in Buffalo's Week 11 waxing by the Dolphins, a game in which Miami counterpart Matt Moore tossed three scoring passes and the defense limited the Bills to 245 total yards and no offensive touchdowns.
Moore exited last week's tilt in the third quarter with a mild concussion and neck spasms, but was cleared to resume practicing on Thursday and is expected to start on Sunday.
Miami leads its all-time regular-season series with Buffalo by a 54-36-1 count and has won five of the last seven meetings between the longtime AFC East cohorts following its above-mentioned triumph at Sun Life Stadium last month. The Dolphins also posted a 15-10 decision over the Bills in Buffalo in the 2010 season opener, which halted a string of five consecutive losses for the team at Ralph Wilson Stadium, and bested its fellow division member by a 16-3 count in a game held in Toronto in 2008. Miami last swept a home-and-home set from the Bills during that 2008 season, coming away with a 25-16 decision in South Florida earlier that year.
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 bout, 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.
WHEN THE DOLPHINS HAVE THE BALL
Miami managed only 242 total yards in their Week 11 rout of the Bills but did get a very efficient performance out of Moore (1864 passing yards, 10 TD, 6 INT), with the early-season backup making good on 14-of-20 throws for 160 yards and three touchdowns without a turnover. Such solid showings have generally been the norm for the offseason pickup since he took over for an injured Chad Henne in October, as he's completed better than 61 percent of his passes for the year and been intercepted just twice over his last six starts, but he struggled in going 11-of-19 for a mere 95 yards with a pick against the Eagles before getting hurt. Part of the problem was a lack of sufficient protection up front, as the Miami line surrendered a whopping nine sacks to Philadelphia and saw All-Pro left tackle Jake Long (back) and guard Vernon Carey (ankle) leave the game with injuries. Both are considered questionable for Sunday's test. The Dolphins did get a productive day out of running back Reggie Bush (770 rushing yards, 40 receptions, 6 total TD) last week, with the versatile former No. 2 overall pick gaining 103 rushing yards on only 14 carries to surpass the century mark for the second consecutive game, and he's also a reliable outlet for Moore as a receiver. The Dolphins' main target is big-bodied wide receiver Brandon Marshall (67 receptions, 937 yards, 4 TD), a two-time Pro Bowl honoree who was limited to a season-low five yards on one catch in these teams' first 2011 meeting.
While the final score would indicate otherwise, the Buffalo defense actually had one of its better showings of the season in the team's earlier loss to Miami. The Bills were able to make Marshall a non-factor and did a good job keeping Bush and rookie backfield mate Daniel Thomas (508 rushing yards, 10 receptions, 1 TD) in check as well, with the pair combining for a modest 82 rushing yards on 30 carries. Three of the Dolphins' five touchdowns in the game were set up by Buffalo turnovers, and another came off a blocked punt. The unit hasn't been so strong as of late, though, having permitted an average of 158.3 rushing yards over its last three times out and giving up three or more scoring passes in four of the past five weeks. The Bills have allowed 24 touchdowns through the air on the season, tied for the second-most in the NFL, and are last in the league with 19 sacks. Rookie tackle Marcell Dareus (35 tackles, 4.5 sacks) leads the club in that category and has been one of the group's few bright spots, with inside linebacker Nick Barnett (105 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INT) and strong safety George Wilson (85 tackles, 4 INT) putting forth respectable seasons as well.
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Buffalo had been humming on offense in the early going, averaging an outstanding 30.1 points and 380.1 total yards per game during its 5-2 start, but those numbers have dipped dramatically over the course of its current skid. The Bills have averaged a substandard 12.8 points and 301 total yards in six battles since and haven't been able to overcome the absence of their best player, running back Fred Jackson, to a season-ending broken leg he sustained against the Dolphins last month. The running game's reduced effectiveness has taken its toll on Fitzpatrick (3013, 20 TD, 16 INT), as the Harvard grad has thrown multiple interceptions four times during the sequence of losses, and the receiving corps is devoid of playmakers other than No. 1 wideout Stevie Johnson (63 receptions, 6 TD), who burned the Chargers for a season-best 116 yards on just four catches in last week's loss. Tight end Scott Chandler (35 receptions, 6 TD) had a team-high 71 receiving yards on five grabs in the earlier matchup with Miami and is Buffalo's best weapon in the red zone, but the 6-foot-7 journeyman won't play on Sunday due to a sprained ankle. 2010 first-round pick C.J. Spiller (299 rushing yards, 2 TD, 24 receptions) has taken over as the lead back in Jackson's steed, but hasn't been able to make a big impact in his three starts in that role.
Miami was able to smother the Bills' running attack in its November victory, limiting its division rival to a harmless 41 yards on 19 rush attempts, and has been sensational in that aspect during the season's second half. The Dolphins have held teams to a paltry 56.8 yards per game on the ground over the last five weeks, with the speed-based Eagles mustering only 51 yards in last Sunday's win, and have moved up to third in the league in run defense (89.9 ypg) with the surge. Inside linebackers Karlos Dansby (83 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT) and Kevin Burnett (77 tackles, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT) have both been performing at particularly high levels, and they've gotten good support from a stout three-man line anchored by space-eating nose tackle Paul Soliai (22 tackles) and end Randy Starks (29 tackles, 1.5 sacks). A secondary headed up by cornerback Vontae Davis (34 tackles, 1 sack, 2 INT) has stepped it up as well, with Miami having snared eight interceptions over the past five weeks after coming up with just two in the initial eight games of 2011, while 37-year-old outside linebacker Jason Taylor (12 tackles, 6 sacks) hasn't displayed any signs of advanced age as of late. The six-time Pro Bowl selection had two sacks against Philadelphia and owns four in the Dolphins' past five contests, giving the crew a dangerous complement to dangerous pass rusher Cameron Wake (32 tackles, 6.5 sacks) on the opposite side.
KEYS TO THE GAME
Turnovers. Buffalo's sloppiness played a big part in Miami's lopsided win when these teams last met, with the Dolphins converting three Bills miscues into touchdowns to take a commanding 28-6 halftime lead. Buffalo's defense has also stopped creating mistakes after excelling in department during the early portion of the season. The Bills racked up an impressive 16 takeaways in prevailing in four of their first five tilts of 2011, but have just seven in going 1-7 since.
Fitzpatrick. The Bills have usually been a tough foe when their quarterback is on point, but that's hardly been the case lately. The 29-year-old has finished with a passer rating below 55 in four of the last six games, all of which have been Buffalo losses, and with the team likely to find tough sledding in running the football against Miami's stern defense, he's going to have to regain his early-season form for the Bills to end their extensive winless drought.
Red-zone defense. This was another area in which the Dolphins dominated in their Week 11 ousting of the Bills, with the offense scoring touchdowns on all four possessions inside the Buffalo 20-yard line and the defense not yielding a single one in three red-zone trips by its opponent. Miami has allowed touchdowns on only 40 percent of such drives this season, tied for fourth-best in the NFL, while the Bills are 31st in the league in that category (68.1 percent).
A change in leadership shouldn't have much of an effect on the Dolphins' on- field play off the bat, as Miami has most certainly been the superior of these two participants over the past six weeks and easily handled a Buffalo team that's in complete disarray a month ago. The Bills' offensive funk stands a good chance of continuing against a Dolphins defense that's gotten its act together following a bad start, while Miami shouldn't have too much trouble establishing an effective running game against a porous Buffalo group that also can't pressure the passer. Bowles may have the perfect foe to make a good first impression on both his present and possibly future employers, as the Dolphins appear to possess clear advantages in a number of important areas.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Dolphins 24, Bills 13