Bills claim fourth straight AFC East crown with 21-14 win over Dolphins

01/08/2024
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The Buffalo Bills are the AFC East champions for a fourth straight season. The team had clinched a playoff spot before its Week 18 contest with the Miami Dolphins kicked off thanks to the Tennessee Titans’ upset of the Jacksonville Jaguars, but the second seed in the AFC was on the line. That, and the opportunity for Buffalo to all but bury its division rivals as the Fins limp into the postseason as the sixth seed.

It was an unbelievable performance by the Bills, who kept scratching, clawing, and fighting their way back from the hole they dug themselves before their bye week. They had a mentality of “never say die” and that mentality—that culture—is what got the Bills this win. As we do every week, we will take a look at the most inspiring part of the game, the part of the game that needs some more questions asked, who requires a better performance, and the most irksome performance of the game. 

Inspire – Defense (and Deonte Harty):

Despite all the injuries, issues, and changes this defense has had to make this season, they were absolutely superb against the Dolphins. The Dolphins knew what was on the line, they wanted that second seed just as much as the Bills did, and they wanted to prove that they aren’t a flukey team that can’t win big games. Week 18 did not help their narrative because Sean McDermott’s defense kept up with Tua Tagovailoa and Mike McDaniel all night, doing just enough to hold them at bay despite the Bills’ offense not doing them many favors early on. Some defenses around the league have fallen apart throughout this season—the Philadelphia Eagles, the Jacksonville Jaguars, the list goes on—and they haven’t had anything close to what the Bills have had to deal with in terms of injuries. The fact that McDermott has his unit playing at this level is nothing short of masterful. They keep themselves focused and composed, and they never, ever feel like they’re out of it. Players like Terrel Bernard, Ed Oliver, and Taron Johnson, despite not being in serious contention for the Pro Bowl, all deserve consideration for All-Pro spots, and Taylor Rapp deserves a major shout-out for icing the game with a clutch interception directly after tipping a pass that was almost intercepted.

Shoutout to Deonte Harty who came in clutch in the fourth quarter with the longest punt return in Buffalo Bills history, going 96 yards to the house. It’s been a rough year for Harty, who will likely be cut after this season, but he showed up when he absolutely had to, finding the lane and using his speed to blow past every single Dolphins defender. Despite the lackluster special teams play throughout the season, they found a way to come up big, and there’s something to be said about that “never say die” mentality that is permeating this entire team, but especially the defense and special teams this week.

Inquire – Injuries:

Going into the playoffs, who is and isn’t available is a big deal. Tyrel Dodson, Rasul Douglas, Ty Johnson, and Gabe Davis all ended up leaving the game with injuries, and going into the Wild Card round against the Pittsburgh Steelers you obviously want everyone available that you can. Losing another linebacker, especially one that has been playing fairly well in Dodson, is tough to contend with, although Baylon Spector played well down the stretch. The biggest injuries are to Douglas and Davis, as Douglas has been money for the Bills ever since he came over in the trade from the (now playoff-bound) Green Bay Packers. While Davis is certainly not a popular player among Bills fans right now, he does a lot of things for this offense, especially as a blocker from multiple positions on the offense; him not being on this team makes this team worse. While the Steelers are not exactly the most fearsome foe to face in the playoffs, injuries are a big equalizer, and while the Steelers will be without their best player in T.J. Watt, the Bills having as many question marks health-wise is a problem and they need as many of these players available as they can get. 

Require – Run Game:

After a dominant performance against the Cowboys, the Bills’ run game has largely disappeared. What has changed? It’s hard to say. On the one hand, the most obvious thing is that the Bills aren’t facing the deliberately lightweight defense that the Cowboys have (which is built to defend the pass, not the run) so they were never going to have that level of success. But even if you take that aspect out of this equation, the Bills have struggled to find consistency in the run game. If there’s one thing the Bills improved upon with the switch from Brian Daboll to Ken Dorsey, it was finding success in the run game without relying entirely on Josh Allen. Joe Brady then took that and decided to actually commit to it when it works. It’s a good sign that despite the lack of success in the run game, Brady didn’t try to force it in order to force success just because it was likely part of the game plan to get Cook involved against these slower linebackers of the Dolphins. That said, the Bills need to find that success on the ground again, find the balance to keep defenses guessing, but ultimately ride the hot hand, whether that’s through the air or on the ground; find what works, and hammer it until they stop it. 

Irk – Josh Allen:

Josh Allen has been bad for a month. After his incredible, heroic performance against the Philadelphia Eagles in a loss, the Bills went to the bye week and since then Allen has been significantly worse. Allen’s turnovers are nothing new; even the biggest proponents of Allen coming out of college knew that turnovers would probably still be an issue. Typically, those turnovers came with many more touchdowns and big plays. Now, not only are those big plays and scores not coming in the same frequency, but the turnovers and mistakes are coming at the worst possible time. Late in the game, in the red zone, at the end of the half without a timeout, it was a problem in this game, and it’s been a problem for most of the season. At the end of the day, Allen, much like the rest of the team, just kept going, didn’t get so deep into the hole that he couldn’t pull himself out of it, and played well down the stretch to give the Bills their fourth straight AFC East title. Going into the playoffs, those mistakes cannot happen at this frequency, and certainly not in those positions. Allen made a lot of big, clutch plays down the stretch that won this game and ultimately the division and the 2secondseed for them. But Allen, like the rest of this Bills team, has to be on their A-game the rest of the way, because the margin for error is zero in the playoffs. A few plays here and there, and this is a different story for Allen, which has often felt like the case through most of the season for this entire Bills team. Regardless, the Bills would not be in this spot without their quarterback, and there’s no one else who would be able to lead them through the fire (even once they start themselves sometimes) than Allen. 

Against all odds, the Bills are not only in the playoffs, they are the second seed, and will be playing the Steelers on Sunday, 1:00 PM, in Orchard Park. With the Baltimore Ravens as the first seed, they earn a bye week while the Bills face the lowest-seeded Steelers. While the Steelers aren’t exactly a strong team overall, they are more than capable of beating anyone on any given Sunday with Mike Tomlin as their head coach. The Bills are in the dance, and they have a chance—time to see what they can do. 

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