On paper, the AFC Wild Card matchup between the Miami Dolphins and Buffalo Bills appeared to be an unfair battle. With Tua Tagovailoa sitting out due to his latest concussion, the Bills entered the day as 14-point favorites, making the Dolphins the biggest underdog in Super Wild Card Weekend history.
Once the game kicked off, it quickly became apparent that rookie seventh-round pick Skylar Thompson was placed in a position that would be tough to overcome. But give credit to the Dolphins, who refused to let any negative thoughts creep in, giving the Bills everything they could handle in this heated divisional duel.
Recapping a game that featured everything from big scores and controversial calls to Griddy celebrations and even defensive touchdowns, here are the biggest winners and losers from Buffalo’s close win over Miami to advance to the Divisional Round.
Winner: Stefon Diggs reminds us he’s elite
It didn’t take long for Stefon Diggs to get involved. Josh Allen tried a deep bomb to Diggs on the opening possession, just barely overthrowing his playmaking receiver. Yet he made the adjustment on the ensuing drive, leading to a beautiful 54-yard drop in the bucket to set up an eventual Dawson Knox touchdown catch.
Diggs had 96 yards in the first quarter. By halftime, Diggs was up to six receptions and 110 yards. Yet, the Dolphins were able to bottle Diggs up in the second half, holding him to just one more catch for four yards. Still, his early impact left a mark, setting the tone for Buffalo’s offense.
With Miami’s defense placing a stronger emphasis on slowing Diggs down, we saw Gabe Davis, Khalil Shakir, and Cole Beasley take turns strutting their stuff to help Allen finish with 352 passing yards. It didn’t matter who the Dolphins tried to take away, Allen kept finding the open receiver to rumble his way to victory.
Loser: Miami Dolphins fanbase
After a fantastic offseason where the Dolphins made several big additions to their roster, from Pro Bowl tackle Terron Armstead, to world-class burner Tyreek Hill to go with mid-season acquisition Bradley Chubb, Mike McDaniel had his team off to a red-hot start at 8-3.
The Dolphins were looking like a unit that could be strong enough to go on a deep postseason run and possibly even end up in the Super Bowl with a bit of luck. But Tagovailoa’s concerning injuries ended up derailing the latter half of the season, going on a five-game losing streak before backing into the playoffs for a tough first-round matchup with the Bills.
While there were several stages where the Dolphins were one of the most exciting teams on the gridiron, without Tagovailoa, they’re not quite on the level of sticking with the best teams in the playoffs, and that was on full display on Sunday afternoon.
Winner: Bills defense puts the clamps on Miami’s offense
A Josh Allen-led offense featuring Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis may get all the attention league-wide, but the Buffalo defense is arguably just as good. This is a unit that features several Pro Bowl-level players, such as Matt Milano, Tre’Davious White, and Jordan Poyer. The combination held opponents to the second-fewest points per game this season.
On Sunday, we saw major contributions from Milano in particular, who led the team with 10 tackles while also sacking Thompson twice. Tremaine Edmunds, Buffalo’s other starting linebacker, was also flying all over the field, including this vicious hit to prevent a Miami first down.
Then rookie first-round pick Kaiir Elam managed to snag an interception, and Dean Marlowe picked off the Dolphins for the third time in his career to help put the Dolphins away for good. In all, the Bills led a complete effort, with the defense picking up the offense in timely situations and the offense doing the same when needed.
Loser: Skylar Thompson, Dolphins receiving corps lead letdown
Starting against the NFL’s second-best defense is a tall task for anyone. Expecting a rookie seventh-round quarterback to lead the charge, well, that’s just not fair. Of course, it’s not Miami’s fault. This wasn’t coach McDaniel’s ideal plan heading into the playoffs in his first season as the team’s head coach.
But injuries are unpredictable, and both Tagovailoa and his backup, Teddy Bridgewater, were too hurt to start the game, leaving Thompson as the next man up.
We’re not going to act like the 247th overall pick from the 2022 NFL Draft was perfect. He was far from great, missing several throws and often looking overmatched. But his receiving corps didn’t exactly hold up their end of the bargain either. The entire Dolphins team knew it would take their best effort to overcome the Bills on Sunday, but that wasn’t the case at all.
Instead, we saw drops by star receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. Asking Thompson to do even more on a day when the Dolphins already started behind the sticks is not an ideal recipe for success, and it led to a disaster.
Loser: Mike McDaniel’s play clock management
Leading his team in the playoffs for the first time in his head coaching career, Mike McDaniel has a right to be proud of the effort his locker room put forth, but he also has to admit he may have also cost his franchise a playoff win.
Late in the game, with each second that winds off becoming more valuable than the last, the Dolphins struggled to get the play call in. It ultimately led to a crucial situation on 4th-and-1, where the Dolphins rushed to get to the line of scrimmage, only to be nailed with a delay of game penalty, setting up a much tougher 4th-and-6.
As expected, after putting Thompson in an unenviable position, the Dolphins weren’t able to convert. Their turnover on downs led to Miami’s final possession on the day and a first-round playoff exit.