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Posted: Saturday, 21 December 2013 11:40AM

5 things to watch in Bills - Dolphins

(WGR 550) -- It's an almost yearly tradition since the turn of the century. When the Buffalo Bills play their final home game of a regular season in late December, it's common for that game to have no implications for the team in that calendar year.

In 2013, the Bills get to go up against their once hated rivals in the Miami Dolphins. The Dolphins control their own destiny, with two wins in the season's final two weeks guaranteeing them a spot in the playoffs.

Can the Bills play the role of the spoilers? Here are some things to be cognizant of when the pair of teams meet up for the second time this season:

1) Thad Lewis gets start #4
- If there is any team that won't be caught by surprise by a Bills team led by someone other than quarterback EJ Manuel, it's the Miami Dolphins. This will be the fifth start Manuel misses in 2013, and of the previous four the only game Buffalo won their game was their October date with Miami. Thad Lewis not only started that game, but came away with the victory against the team whose stadium he grew up only a few miles away from. Lewis has gotten a couple of months to not only have his injuries heal, but to get a little bit more comfortable within the offense. There are still some obvious issues when Lewis starts a game. For one, turnovers and the opportunity for them are a lot higher when the Bills' backup makes the start. Lewis threw only two interceptions in three starts, but accounted for a whopping six fumbles. He only lost half of them, but that's far too many opportunities for Buffalo's opponents to make potential game-changing plays. Even still, Lewis can throw the ball with confidence and velocity to hit his intermediate targets and proved that he will take a punishing hit to try and deliver a throw to his wide receiver. It won't be a flawless game, but Lewis has the ability to keep the Bills in games.

2) Tannehill taking a leap forward
- It appears as though Ryan Tannehill has taken a definitive step forward in his progress as a starting quarterback. Over his past three games, all Miami victories, he's completed 64.6-percent of his passes for 843 yards, eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. He went over 300 yards passing only once during his rookie season, and now has done it five separate times in 2013. He's throwing the ball with confidence, taking more shots down the field and allowing receivers Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline and tight end Charles Clay to make plays. The Bills defense is better than the trio Tannehill has faced over Miami's three-game win streak (Jets, Steelers, Patriots), but they still allowed the second-year player to throw three touchdown passes in their October meeting. The Dolphins have been showing read-option looks recently, and it wouldn't be surprising to see them go after Jerry Hughes in that respect, who has shown he is the most likely of the Bills' edge defenders to bite on the run on those plays. Tannehill has been keying the efforts for Miami to get back into the playoff race, and with two more successful weeks, he'll end any lingering conversations Dolphins fans may be having asking whether or not he's their long-term answer at quarterback.

3) Miami OL woes haven't gone away
- It's fairly safe to say that the offensive line of the Dolphins have gone through a bit of adversity since the Bills last saw them. Jonathan Martin went AWOL, Richie Incognito is suspended for the rest of the season and now the 34-year old Bryant McKinnie is their most stable offensive tackle on the field. In their first meeting, the Bills tormented Miami's offensive line when it counted most and helped Buffalo to a victory. All the same, there are three key matchups along line that will benefit the Bills greatly. Right tackle Tyson Clabo is still probably having nightmares about Mario Williams and his strip-sack to get Buffalo a chance to win the October game. That matchup will once again swing in the favor of Williams, as will left guard Nate Garner going up against defensive lineman Kyle Williams and also Marcell Dareus matched up against right guard John Jerry. Center Mike Pouncey is their most talented lineman, but he can only help one side against the duo of Dareus and Williams. Expect the Bills to be in the backfield on a few different occasions on Sunday.

4) Wake has a running mate: Olivier Vernon
- The Miami Dolphins traded all the way up to third overall in the 2013 NFL Draft to select what they hoped was the complementary pass rusher to their stalwart Cameron Wake. Little did they know it wouldn't be their actual draft pick Dion Jordan to do it, but rather the impressive Olivier Vernon. Now in his second season, Vernon has broken out for 11.5 sacks on the season including seven over his last five games. In their first meeting with the Bills, Vernon burst by left tackle Cordy Glenn for a sack, so that matchup will likely be a battle all game long once again. The Bills caught a bit of a break in October because Cameron Wake was only just coming back from an injury and was quite limited in the first meeting. It won't be the same story this time around and he'll be up against Buffalo's struggling right tackle Erik Pears. Although not necessarily a pass rusher, Paul Soliai up against Doug Legursky has nightmare written all over it. The defensive lines for both teams will likely dominate this game.

5) Nothing to play for, nothing to lose
- At 5-9, the Buffalo Bills are officially eliminated from playoff contention. The bad part of that is obvious, they won't be going to the postseason for the 14th straight season. The good part for late season contests? They now have nothing to lose and can play with that freedom. That type of mentality is one of the scariest attitudes for an opposing team that really needs a victory for their own hopes. Miami can clinch the playoffs with a win and some help, but they can also be eliminated from contention completely with a loss and other games going against them. If the Dolphins win and both Baltimore and Cincinnati loses, Miami will be in the playoffs. However, if they lose to Buffalo and both Baltimore and Cincinnati win, along with a San Diego loss, the Dolphins will be eliminated. With it being so close, will Miami tighten up? That might be the biggest hurdle to clear because they'll be going up against a Buffalo team that will be loose.

OUT: QB EJ Manuel (knee), WR Stevie Johnson (non-injury), S Aaron Williams (ribs)
PROBABLE: HB Fred Jackson (ribs), DL Kyle Williams (Achilles), DL Marcell Dareus (ankle), CB Brandon Smith (ankle), K Dan Carpenter (illness)

QUESTIONABLE: HB Daniel Thomas (ankle)
PROBABLE: S Chris Clemons (knee), CB Brent Grimes (groin), DT Paul Soliai (ankle), CB Nolan Carroll (knee), CB Jamar Taylor (hamstring), DE Olivier Vernon (ankle), S Reshad Jones (groin), LS John Denney (illness)

Prediction: Dolphins over Bills
- In a game where both defensive lines will likely dominate and dictate how the game is played, it comes down to which quarterback will be able to get the job done against the pressure brought against him. Not only has Ryan Tannehill taken a step forward as a total passer, but he has also shown poise in the pocket as things are breaking down all around him. He'll have some opportunities in this game, and the one name to watch for will be tight end Charles Clay. The loss of safety Aaron Williams this week is a lot bigger than you would think. While he's a talented player who can stick with tight ends, it's more about the player that is replacing him that could yield large results for the Dolphins' passing attack. If Da'Norris Searcy struggles in coverage as he has shown to do throughout his career, it could be the biggest reason Miami comes away with a victory. While the Bills will put up a fight, in the end the talent of Miami and their offensive skill players will be the determining factor in the game.

Twitter: @JoeBuscaglia

All photos courtesy of AP
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