Franchise Turning Point: Grades and Analysis from Miami’s Epic 34-31 Win Over Buffalo
In one of the most impactful victories in the past decade of Dolphins’ football, Miami won 34-31 in a thriller against the Buffalo Bills on Saturday. They absolutely needed a win to prove to themselves that they were playoff contenders, and their resilience once again shined through against their division rivals. While it wasn’t the perfect performance (even in wins, it rarely is), Gase once again had his injury-plagued squad ready to battle against a motivated team struggling to remain in the playoff hunt. The Dolphins had to hold on in overtime, but this felt like a turning point for the franchise. They aren’t going to roll over like they have so many times over the past few years. This is a team that doesn’t just think they can win every game, but expects to. Confidence can be a powerful thing in the NFL, and never has it been more evident for the Dolphins than in their vital win over the Bills. With the help of a Broncos loss on Christmas night, the Miami Dolphins find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2008. Let’s hand out grades for Miami’s monumental, playoff-clinching victory in Buffalo.
Matt Moore: B
Considering the increase in competition, it is no surprise that Matt Moore failed to match his level of effectiveness from last week’s matchup against the lowly New York Jets. Nonetheless, Moore did more than enough to keep the Dolphins in the game and set them up for the win.
Had it not been for a potentially costly interception at the end of the first half, this grade would be even higher. He finished the game an efficient 16/30 for 233 yards and two touchdowns, and he effectively led Miami down the field on several key scoring drives. With the help of the dominant performance by Jay Ajayi and the offensive line, Moore took what Rex Ryan and the Bills’ defense gave him and was able to avoid mistakes (outside of the aforementioned pick).
Many teams would have folded under the pressure of losing their starting quarterback amidst a playoff race, regardless of the competition. Moore deserves a ton of credit for having the support of his teammates and coming out ready to play against a motivated squad on the road. In doing so, he finished the job that Ryan Tannehill started and brought the Dolphins back to the promise land.
Running Backs: A+
We have been waiting for this type of performance from Ajayi. After several weeks of lackluster performances, Ajayi finally looked like the back that carried this team to a six-game win streak earlier in the season. He finished with 32 carries for 206 yards and a touchdown, and he broke off multiple big runs to take the pressure off of Moore.
He was decisive, powerful and explosive throughout the matchup, and his touchdown run was a prime example:
The rest of the position group made an obvious impact as well. Kenyan Drake exploded for a 45-yard touchdown while Damien Williams added two catches for 51 yards.
Overall, this was one of the most complete performances from Miami’s running back group and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Ajayi was great throughout, and the backups found ways to impact the game. Gase had to be happy with this aspect of the offense, especially considering what was on the line.
Wide Receivers: B+
This was by no means the best the wide receivers have looked. However, they did more than enough to complement Ajayi and the running game. DeVante Parker once again led the position on the back of this huge 56-yard touchdown:
Kenny Stills remained a key cog in the offense and a reliable target for Moore. He didn’t have any of his signature big plays, but remained productive to the tune of three catches for 35 yards and a third quarter touchdown to stretch their lead to 28-14.
Jarvis Landry was the least statistically impressive of the bunch, but certainly passed the eye test. He looked borderline untouchable with the ball in his hands at points, specifically on this play:
At the end of the day, the wide receivers were solid. They put points on the board and stretched the lead just enough for the Dolphins to hold on. In my opinion, that is more than enough reason to give them a B+.
Offensive Line: A
As mentioned earlier, the offensive line was dominant in this one. Outside of a few careless penalties, the big guys up front could practically do no wrong. For the first time in weeks, they opened up holes for Ajayi to exploit. Take Ajayi’s massive 57-yard run in overtime for example:
Gase’s offense will go as far as Ajayi and the blockers can take them, especially with Moore at quarterback, and they were fantastic against the Bills.
Additionally, they provided Moore with a clean pocket throughout the game. Moore wasn’t sacked a single time and was rarely forced to scramble. Injuries have plagued this position group but it finally seems like they are rebounding from their past misfortunes. Gase has created a culture that embraces scratching and clawing for victories, and there is no better way to do it than to win in the trenches.
Defensive Line: B+
Stop me if you’ve heard this before: Cameron Wake had another sack. Up to 11.5 on the season, Wake continues to state his case for Comeback Player of the Year and remains the heart and soul of this team. Ignore his age and past injury history; this is one of the most explosive and relentless defenders in all of the NFL.
Outside of Wake, Miami’s defensive linemen lived in Buffalo’s backfield. Jason Jones added a sack, Andre Branch totaled three tackles for a loss and Ndamukong Suh tallied a TFL of his own. Jordan Phillips and Earl Mitchell each got to Tyrod Taylor for QB hits as well.
The Bills had a great day on the ground, but as we all know by now that isn’t really the defensive linemen’s fault. Joseph puts so much responsibility on rushing the passer that it naturally creates holes for the opposing offense to exploit. They missed a couple of tackles that they should’ve made, but they applied enough pressure on the quarterback to deserve this grade.
The linebackers, on the other hand, struggled mightily once again. LeSean McCoy carved them up, they missed tackles and they failed to contain the quarterback on various occasions. To make matters worse, Kiko Alonso was (surprisingly) somewhat of a nonfactor against his former team.
However, Bacarri Rambo and Neville Hewitt combined for 19 tackles and three TFLs. Spencer Paysinger had an undeniable role in the victory as well, breaking up a pass in the end zone (and somehow avoiding a pass interference call) to help prevent what seemed like an imminent touchdown drive.
At this point in the season, we know that this is one of if not the weakest group on the Dolphins. They’re going to make mistakes. However, like every other position on this roster, they play hard. Effort isn’t the issue… talent is; and under Gase’s guidance, that may be enough to find success in the playoffs.
Defensive Backs: D+
This was one of the worst statistical performances by the defensive backfield all season. The combination of Tyrod Taylor and Sammy Watkins made the secondary look silly on multiple occasions. With Byron Maxwell absent from the lineup, Miami clearly lacked playmaking on the backend. They looked more like the secondary from the first few games of the season, which certainly isn’t a complement.
Xavien Howard returned to the starting lineup after a strong performance against New York, but failed to carry over any momentum. Simply put, he was largely terrible. He was victimized time and time again by Watkins and couldn’t slow down Charles Clay either. The deep safeties seemed lost as well, allowing Watkins and Clay to beat them deep throughout the game.
Howard and Lippett will only improve as they gain experience and learn under Joseph, and in all fairness, they did have some strong points in this one. In the play below, for example, Lippett does a great job recovering and breaking on the play to disrupt the throw:
With that being said, teams will continue to try to exploit them in the playoffs until they show consistency. Howard, as a rookie, is especially susceptible to be targeted early and often in the coming weeks. In this one, they ultimately allowed Taylor to score three passing touchdowns for just the second time all season. The result was Taylor’s highest passer rating of the season (118.4) and a very close call for the Dolphins.
Special Teams: B
This was undoubtedly the hardest grade to determine. After Andrew Franks missed a 46-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, I was prepared to give special teams an “F.” At the time of the miss, it was only a one-possession game. Thus, when Buffalo scored with 1:20 left in the matchup, it seemed like Franks might have single handedly cost his team the game and potentially a shot at the playoffs.
However, an amazing thing happened soon thereafter. Franks suddenly seemed devoid of nerves. He stepped up on 4th and 3 with less than 10 seconds remaining and nailed a 55-yarder to send the game into overtime.
Over the last seven seasons, only 6 of the 20 attempted game-tying or go-ahead field goals of 55 yards or longer in the last ten seconds of the fourth quarter went in. This was, in all honesty, a magical moment. This will undeniably go down as a defining play in the inaugural season of what should be a long career for Gase in South Beach.
After Moore and Ajayi led the Dolphins down the field on a 77-yard drive in overtime, Franks converted an easy 27-yard kick to seal the victory for Miami. He also made all four of his PAT attempts. Additionally, Jakeem Grant, Kenyan Drake and Jarvis Landry were all great in the return game.
With that being said, this grade really comes down to Franks. While his missed field goal set Miami up for a potential disaster, the difficulty and impact of his game-tying, franchise-altering field goal simply can’t be ignored.
Credit Adam Gase for keeping his team’s composure in this one. It was an absolutely crazy second half with a lot on the line, and they somehow managed to come out with a win.
The offensive game plan was great. Ajayi already had one 200-yard rushing performance against Buffalo on the season, and Gase certainly didn’t stray from what had worked earlier in 2016. He also deserves props for getting his team ready to play against a significantly more difficult opponent after an easy win against the hopeless Jets a week before.
Defensively, it was a little shakier. I couldn’t really tell what Miami’s defensive game plan was, as Buffalo’s offense shredded the Dolphins in nearly every aspect. Plus, Miami was forced to narrowly avoid a disaster when the defense was penalized for having 12 men on the field on 4th and 1 on their 16-yard line.
Nevertheless, this was simply the latest example of Gase’s masterful ability to shape the culture of this franchise. This is a team that believes they can win no matter what and wins games in the trenches. Both of those aspects were unheard of in South Beach prior to Gase’s arrival, and that’s what makes this one of the most impactful victories in Miami’s recent history. He is slowly but surely stating his case as a candidate for Coach of the Year and, in doing so, has drastically altered the trajectory of this franchise.