BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Miami Dolphins have lost three games in a row, and in a results-driven business, that is the cold fact of the matter.
But Saturday night's 32-29 loss to the Buffalo Bills felt different from their previous two. The Dolphins left frigid western New York with reasons for optimism as they prepare for a Christmas Day home game against the Green Bay Packers (1 p.m. ET, Fox) -- even if they don't see it that way.
"We not into moral victories, at all," wide receiver Jaylen Waddle said. "We're gonna learn from it. The Bills did a good job and won the game, but we'll learn from it and go back to the drawing board. We've got three more games to go out there and compete."
In below-freezing temperatures, the Dolphins' offense woke up from its winter hibernation to the tune of 405 total yards against one of the best defenses in the NFL. Miami cracked the 100-yard rushing mark for the first time since Week 10 and did it in the first quarter, as Raheem Mostert became the first Dolphins player to rush for 100 yards in the first quarter of a game in at least the past 30 seasons.
After looking out of sync the previous two weeks, Miami appeared to recapture some of the rhythm that, at one point, catapulted it to the top of the AFC standings. There are still things that need cleaning up -- untimely penalties and third-down defense come to mind -- but there's no shame in losing to the Bills in December at Highmark Stadium on a last-second field goal.
Coach Mike McDaniel said he won't allow there to be.
"On the positive side, I think that is night and day from the football we've played since the bye," he said. "So had we played like that for the whole season, we'd be feeling a lot different because it wouldn't be the third loss in a row ... We've got a game next week, and that's really all you can control. Right now, I think it would be weak-minded of any player or coach on the Miami Dolphins to have less confidence from this game going into next week -- that would just mean that they're sick of being vulnerable.
"And if I have any say in that, that will not be the case."
The Dolphins' playoff hopes, while obviously not as concrete as they were three weeks ago, are far from disintegrated. They're still in a position where they don't need to rely on any other team; win out, and they're in.
Even simpler, if they beat the New England Patriots and the New York Jets, they will make the playoffs even if their losing streak extends to four games next week.
That's not as big of a stretch as it seemed entering Week 15.
Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa played his worst two games of the season against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 13 and Los Angeles Chargers in Week 14, setting season lows in off-target percentage and completion percentage over expectation. But he was more efficient against the Bills, as Miami's offense made four trips into the red zone Saturday night -- four more than it made in its previous two games.
McDaniel said he would like to see his players develop a shorter memory from play to play and not hang their heads after a big play doesn't go their way. Tagovailoa elaborated on the lesson the Dolphins hope to learn during this final stretch of the season.
"I would say I'm very proud of the way our leaders stepped up in this game," he said. "In some of the biggest moments, in crucial moments of the game, our leaders had made big plays in this game. I think our team is taking a step in the right direction, but it's tough when a lot of the guys on the team have that 'it's my fault' mentality to not go into a deep hole. I think that's the learning lesson for everyone, me included, that we have four quarters.
"We don't have to press. We don't have to get down on ourselves. [The other team is] good, too. They're going to make plays, and that's why you learn to trust. That's why it's, in my opinion, the greatest team sport that if our defense gets us the ball, they trust that we have to go and put points on the board. That's all it is."
Tagovailoa said he doesn't particularly care about his personal performance because "a loss is a loss, regardless of how I played."
Shortly before exiting his news conference Saturday, Tagovailoa said the Dolphins are in this business to win. And while he and Waddle have a point, that tolerance for moral victories is low this time of the year, the Dolphins appear to be closer to winning than they seemed over the previous two weeks.