On Sunday afternoon, Buffalo and Miami will say hello to each again for the first time since last season. And considering how the Dolphins handled the Bills rather easily last season, the Bills should have nothing but revenge on their minds.
It’s no secret the Bills have endured their struggles against the AFC East lately. They’ve lost seven consecutive games to their divisional counterparts New England, New York and Miami. But as the Bills go for attempt number two this season to snap their losing skid within the division (no need to relive failed attempt number one), there are a few silver linings to the Bills’ AFC East dark cloud: the Bills have won three of their past five games in Miami and it was against Miami in late 2007 that the Bills last notched a divisional win.
As we fast forward back into 2009, three games into the season, and I really hate to use this term, but this game essentially is a must-win for the Bills. The Bills are 1-2 this season and it’s been an up-and-down three weeks. They’ve shown flashes of some great play and flashes of a team that still isn’t ready to be taken seriously. It’s hard right now to be anything but skeptical if you’re a Bills backer after three short weeks, as the Bills are reverting back to the team we saw in the preseason.
On Miami’s side of the fence, an 0-3 start after an 11-5 season, coupled with a division title and playoff berth is not what they envisioned in the summer. Granted the schedule makers did the Dolphins no favors through the first three weeks. They lost on opening weekend at Atlanta, thanks in large part to four turnovers. The following week Miami returned home for a Monday night tilt with Indianapolis. In their best Bills impersonation on Monday Night Football, the Dolphins controlled the ball for an astonishing 45 minutes, yet still came out on a losing end. And last week, coming off a short week on Monday night, Miami had to travel across the country to San Diego and lost more than just the game. Their veteran quarterback Chad Pennington dislocated his shoulder and put on injured reserve. Their defensive leader, middle linebacker Joey Porter, left the game with a hamstring injury and his status is unknown for Sunday’s game with the Bills. Now, still searching for their first victory of the season and with Pennington lost for the year, Miami is forced to turn to backup Chad Henne, who will make his first career start in the NFL. All is not well in South Beach.
In relief of Pennington last Sunday, the inexperienced Henne never looked comfortable. Righfully so, Henne seemed gun shy and had that look of being unprepared to be thrown into the fire. Though he completed 10-of-19 passes for 92, Henne committed a big mistake that resulted in Chargers defensive back Eric Weddle picking off a pass and taking it back for six. With an unproven quarterback under center, we can expect Bills defensive coordinator Perry Fewell to throw as many different defensive looks at Henne as possible. And blitz until the Dolphins say uncle.
While the Bills don’t really know what to expect from Henne, we do know Miami will lean a little bit more on the running game and the Bills can expect a steady diet of the Wildcat. The running game has been a bit of a problem for the Bills so far this season. They surrendered 222 total rushing yards and three scores to the Saints running game, 126 coming at the hands of Pierre Thomas, who had two of the three touchdowns on the ground. Through three games, the Bills are giving up an average of 117.3 rushing yards per game, while the Dolphins are averaging 161.3 yards on the ground on offense. Translation: expect plenty of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. The Dolphins have a clear strength, the Bills have a growing weakness, and you can expect Miami to play to their strengths. I’m not expecting Henne to drop back 40 times.
Another area that’s cause for more than just concern will be how the Bills handle the Dolphins pass rush. With Porter on the field, the Miami pass rush is very scary but even if Porter is sidelined, the Miami pass rush figures to have success. The Bills line struggled against the Saints veteran defensive front and with OT Demetrius Bell looking doubtful, that means the Bills will plug in Jonathan Scott, who will be making his first start. How Scott performs, coupled with how rookies Andy Levitre and Eric Wood rebound from last week will be a storyline to watch.
After not getting wide outs Terrell Owens and Lee Evans involved early and often, the Bills will make a concentrated effort to spread the ball to their duo. Or, so they say they will. If it’s one area of weakness the Bills must attack, it’s in the Miami secondary. The Dolphins have been susceptible to the long pass this season. Against the Colts in Week 2, they were hit for touchdown passes of 80 and 48 yards to Dallas Clark and Pierre Garcon. Last week at San Diego, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers peppered them for completions of 30, 47 and 55 yards.
Last season, Miami swept the season series against Buffalo, thanks largely to their defensive effort. The Dolphins defense shackled the Bills, and as a result, Buffalo was outscored by a combined score of 41-19 in both losses. The Bills also turned the football over six times in the two meetings.
Sunday’s game features two very desperate football teams, both staring straight up to the Jets and the Patriots in the standings. This is a game that if the Bills are going to go anywhere this season, a loss in this spot simply cannot happen. And if they have any hopes whatsoever of the “p” word, they cannot keep losing games against their division. For Miami, another loss probably signals the end of their season and wipes away any chance they’ll have at reaching the playoffs for the second year in a row.