The Miami Dolphins' defense has been a few takeaways shy of terrific.
Miami probably will sit out the playoffs for the fourth year in a row, but it won't be because of the defense. Going into Sunday's game against Buffalo, the unit ranks fourth in the NFL in points allowed at 17.9 per game.
That's especially impressive considering the Dolphins are tied for next-to-last in takeaways with 12.
"As far as the identity of the defense, there are a couple things that we talk about all the time," first-year coach Joe Philbin says. "We want to be a physical defense, we want to tackle well, we want to pursue well, we want to create turnovers, we want to play well in critical situations. You know the one area where we're very deficient. However, in the other areas the guys are doing some good things."
Not enough for a playoff berth, perhaps. The Dolphins (6-8) are tied for eighth in the AFC race for six playoff spots, and to stay alive for another week, they must beat Buffalo while the Steelers defeat the Bengals.
The Bills (5-9) are assured of sitting out the playoffs for the 13th consecutive year, the longest such active streak in the NFL. And defense is their primary culprit.
The Bills are on pace to break the franchise record for points allowed. They're giving up 28.7 per game, tied for last in the league, including 50 last week at home against Seattle.
Buffalo is the first team since 1986 to allow at least 45 points in four games.
"It bothers you," defensive tackle Kyle Williams says. "More than anything is that you're losing games and you can't find a level of consistency. You play well, then you play bad, you play well a couple of games and then you play bad. That's the main thing we've got to get fixed."
One of the Bills' best defensive showings came in Week 11, when they beat Miami 19-14. Buffalo forced three turnovers while allowing a season-low 184 yards, and the Dolphins still chafe at their feeble showing.
"You never know when those games are going to come back to hurt you toward the end of the season," running back Reggie Bush says. "The Buffalo game was definitely a game where we felt we were in it at toward the end, and we maybe could have come away with that win if we would have made a few plays here and there. Unfortunately we didn't, so this time around we have to make sure we take care of business."
Bush was held in that game to 20 yards rushing — an anomaly for Buffalo. Coach Chan Gailey, his job in jeopardy as the Bills stagger to the end of the season, looks back on videotape of that game in wonder.
"It was amazing how guys filled every gap and we did not miss many tackles," Gailey says. "That was one of the bright spots for our team this year."
Most of the time, the Bills' run defense has been awful. They've allowed 5.1 yards per rush and 22 touchdowns on the ground, both worst in the league.
By contrast, run defense has been the Dolphins' strong suit. They've allowed 3.9 yards per carry and eight TDs rushing, both sixth-best.
The secondary has been shaky at times, with injuries taking a toll. But the Dolphins' third-down defense ranks fifth in the league, and they're No. 1 in red-zone defense, allowing an average of 4 points on such possessions.
Three times last week, they stopped Jacksonville on fourth down in the red zone.
"That's probably when the game is the most fun," end Cameron Wake says. "We love a challenge, and it doesn't matter if they get the ball on the 1, we're going to keep them out of the end zone. It's our job, and we have the players who can make it happen."
In the past month, the Dolphins have held Russell Wilson and the Seahawks' potent offense to two scores. They limited Tom Brady and the Patriots' offense to two touchdowns. They held San Francisco to one touchdown before fading in the final eight minutes. And they allowed hapless Jacksonville only a field goal.
Wake has 14 sacks to lead a formidable pass rush, Karlos Dansby and Kevin Burnett have been solid at linebacker, and Reshad Jones is an emerging star at safety.
"We're a tough group," Jones says. "We've bonded together. All the guys are like brothers out there, and we don't want to give up anything. I'd say we're playing playoff-caliber football."
Not quite — those ball-hawking skills need work. In the past seven games, over a span of 440 plays, the Dolphins have managed only one takeaway. They're on pace to set a franchise record for fewest fumble recoveries.
Defensive coordinator Kevin Coyle wants improvement. He knows a knack for big plays is the way to make an impact in the postseason.
"We're not creating field position like great defenses do," Coyle says, "and ultimately that's what we want to be."
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Buffalo, N.Y., contributed to this report.
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