Only one regular season game remains on the schedule before the real test begins for this 2020-21 Buffalo Bills team. The Bills have conquered nearly every obstacle in their way this season, and now look to secure the second seed in the AFC with either a win or Steelers loss this week. There is a lot on the line for both teams this week, especially for the Miami Dolphins whose playoff hopes hang in the balance pending the results of this weekend. It is still unclear whether or not the Bills intend to rest any of their starters this Sunday knowing that the number two seed is still up for grabs. Steelers HC Mike Tomlin already announced that they will start some of their backups including QB Mason Rudolph against the Browns this weekend, which may factor into the way the Bills decide to handle their own players. As much as the Bills want the second seed, the most important result that can come from this game is a healthy roster. The Bills are remarkably healthy late in the season with the exception of WR Cole Beasley, who is considered week-to-week after suffering a knee injury late in the game on Monday Night. Certainly, Buffalo wants to avoid losing any more key starters to injury right before the playoffs, which may lead them to pull players such as Josh Allen, Stefon Diggs, Tre’Davious White, and several others early in the game or even scratch them altogether. That being said, there is an expectation that backup QB Matt Barkley will see plenty of action in this game, which could be interesting against a motivated Dolphins defense that ranks at the very top of the league this season.
1. Bills Defense vs. Tua Tagovailoa
Since the last time these teams met way back in Week 2, the Dolphins have made a switch at QB. Dolphins HC Brian Flores made the controversial decision to turn to their 5th overall pick, Tua Tagovailoa, in Week 8 despite Ryan Fitzpatrick’s success. While the Dolphins have continued to win, Tua Tagovailoa has not necessarily been the reason why. In only 8 starts, Tagovailoa has already been benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick twice in late game situations. Fitzpatrick even bailed out the rookie QB with some late game Fitzmagic last week, heaving up a miraculous pass while his facemask was being yanked by a defender, setting up the Dolphins for the game winning field goal as time expired. Tagovailoa has struggled to move the ball at times, failing to eclipse the 100 yard passing mark in 3 of his starts. Given the success of the Dolphins defense this season, it is fair to say that they are a better team when Fitzpatrick is on the field right now. However, the Dolphins will be without the 38 year old gunslinger this week after it was announced that Fitzpatrick tested positive for COVID-19, leaving the rookie QB to figure this game out all on his own. Tagovailoa enters the biggest game of his young NFL career against one of the league’s most well-coached defenses. Bills HC Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier have proven to be stingy against rookie quarterbacks, recently handing Rookie of the Year favorite Justin Herbert one of his worst outings. Tagovailoa has typically played more conservative than Herbert has, which may limit how prone he is to mistakes. Still, the Bills possess some of the most intelligent defensive backs in the league in Micah Hyde, Jordan Poyer, and Tre’Davious White who can easily deceive rookies into making those mistakes. No one knows how much time those three will play this Sunday if at all, yet any snaps they take can create trouble for Tagovailoa.
2. Bills Linebackers/Safeties vs. Mike Gesicki
Despite the Dolphins loss in Week 2, TE Mike Gesicki witnessed his best game of the season come against the Bills defense. The talented tight end totaled 8 receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown against Buffalo, tormenting their defense all game long. Gesicki has flashed excellence with his reliable hands and acrobatic catches this season despite the Dolphins varying usage of him. At times, Gesicki appears to be their go-to target while other weeks he seems completely phased out of the offense. Perhaps Tagovailoa will look Gesicki’s way more often this weekend given his success against Buffalo last time, but it may depend on who is out there for the Bills. If LB Matt Milano, who missed Week 2, plays a decent number of snaps, Gesicki could have a much quieter outing this time around. Assuming the Bills rest Milano who has battled injuries all season long, Buffalo will need players such as LB A.J. Klein, Tyrel Dodson, and Andre Smith to step up in his absence. Backup safeties such as Dean Marlowe and Jaquan Johnson could also match up with Gesicki if the Bills turn to the second unit on Sunday.
3. Bills Run Game vs. Dolphins Run Defense
Given the likelihood that Matt Barkley steps in for Josh Allen for some if not most of Week 17, the Bills passing offense will obviously take a hit. The play calling will likely be more conservative than usual once the second unit steps in, which could mean that the Bills will run the ball much more frequently. The Miami Dolphins defense contains several very capable run stoppers including old friend Shaq Lawson, Christian Wilkins, and Emmanuel Ogbah on that defensive line. Additionally, the Dolphins have plenty of talent in every other position group, especially in the secondary. Yards will not be easy to come by once Josh Allen is likely pulled from the game, making the Bills run blocking and execution by Devin Singletary and Zack Moss even more crucial to a Buffalo victory.
This game is difficult to project due to the uncertainty over how the Bills will approach this game. What is certain is that a win will be much more difficult to attain against a desperate Dolphins team if the Bills rest their starters. Tua Tagovailoa should be a major storyline on Sunday due to the circumstances. If he fails to get the job done, the Dolphins will be left in quite the predicament heading into the offseason not knowing if they have their answer at QB. As for the Bills, as long as they can avoid any serious injuries, they will be in very good shape heading into the postseason no matter what seed they end up with.