Bills begin NFL playoff march with sloppy win over short-handed Dolphins

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- The word "resilient" was used often this week to describe the Buffalo Bills.

On Sunday, their ability to fight -- and win -- in close games was on full display against the Miami Dolphins. The Bills came back after surrendering a 17-point lead to defeat the Dolphins 34-31 and advance to the divisional round.

Buffalo Bills

The woes that had hurt the Bills in games all season long were evident on Sunday with questionable offensive playcalling, drops by receivers and turnovers, which allowed the Dolphins to hang around.

Contributions from unexpected sources went a long way for the Bills, with rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam playing a large role -- which included an interception -- in the game. Wide receiver Gabe Davis had one of his best performances of the season with six receptions for 113 yards.

The Bills avoided what would have been one of the worst losses in franchise history, but they have much to clean up in a short amount of time.

Pivotal play: Linebacker Tyrel Dodson averted disaster when he recovered a muffed punt in the third quarter with the Bills leading 27-24. Returner Nyheim Hines called a fair catch but was unable to collect it with the ball bouncing forward, but Dodson snatched it amid a pile of players.

Thanks to Dodson's recovery, the Bills were able to drive down the field and score on a 23-yard touchdown pass from Josh Allen to Davis. If the Dolphins had recovered, they would have had the ball at the Buffalo 32-yard line with a prime opportunity to at least tie the game.

Troubling trend: Allen finished the regular season with a league-high 19 turnovers, but his postseason history was generally clean coming into Sunday, with only one interception and one fumble lost in six career playoff games. That changed against the Dolphins.

The quarterback had a rough stretch in the middle two quarters, throwing two interceptions -- although one intended for wide receiver Cole Beasley did not appear to be on Allen -- and fumbling, which resulted in a Dolphins touchdown. Allen also had a fumble in the fourth quarter recovered by right tackle Spencer Brown. Against better offenses, these turnovers will be season-enders for the Bills.

QB breakdown: While Allen's three turnovers are a major concern, he made some big throws in key moments. The Dolphins' pressure was effective, sacking Allen seven times, tying his career high.

Too often during the game, Allen took shots downfield that fell incomplete, stalling Bills drives. Allen and offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey also were unable to get wide receiver Stefon Diggs involved in the second half, with one target and zero receptions after he caught seven passes for 114 yards in the first half.

Amid the struggles, Allen became the first Bills quarterback with three playoff games of 300-plus passing yards and three passing touchdowns.

Silver lining: Bills safety Dean Marlowe is doing a solid job filling in for Damar Hamlin, especially considering Marlowe was a healthy scratch for the five games prior to starting last week. Marlowe picked off rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson on a pass intended for wide receiver Tyreek Hill in the first quarter. The pick set up rookie running back James Cook's 12-yard touchdown four plays later, giving the Bills a 14-0 lead.

It was Marlowe's first interception since 2020. The Bills will need him to step up as the postseason continues with safety Micah Hyde still at least a week away from a potential return. -- Alaina Getzenberg

Eye-popping NextGen stat: Allen's 52-yard pass to Diggs in the first quarter had a completion probability of 15.6% -- the most improbable completed pass of Allen's career.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins went down swinging, at least; they certainly made things interesting.

The largest playoff underdog in NFL history stormed back from a 17-point first-half deficit to eventually take a brief lead early in the third quarter, but ultimately the short-handed Dolphins couldn't hang on in their loss to the Bills. The loss ends a season that, at one point, appeared to have no ceiling until injuries to key starters, including quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, took their toll.

This game was supposed to be an unmitigated blowout -- and it certainly looked like it would live up to expectations when the Bills raced out to a 17-0 lead to start the game. Despite being forced to go with rookie quarterback Skylar Thompson in his first career playoff start, Miami hung around long enough to give the home crowd at Highmark Stadium a proper scare.

The Dolphins now enter the offseason with both optimism and skepticism. Tagovailoa solidified himself as a plus starter when healthy, but he missed the better part of six games with two documented concussions and still needs to quiet concerns regarding his long-term availability over the course of a full season. First-year coach Mike McDaniel snapped the franchise's five-year playoff drought, but improvements must be made to a run game that ranked 25th in rushing yards per game and a defense that finished 21st in defensive expected points added after finishing eighth in that category in 2021.

Miami is also roughly $7 million over the salary cap for the 2023 season and has decisions to make on Christian Wilkins, Mike Gesicki and Byron Jones (who missed the entire 2022 season but represents an $18.8 million cap hit next season).

The Dolphins and their fan base may spend a decent amount of time this offseason wondering "what if," but they won't have to wonder whether this team mailed in its first playoff game since 2016. Their effort was never in question.

Describe the game in two words: Close call. As in, the Bills nearly suffered one of the more embarrassing playoff defeats in recent memory -- at home to a Dolphins team playing a third-string rookie quarterback. If anything, it serves as a reminder that nothing is certain in the NFL.

QB breakdown: Thompson looked like a rookie making his first career playoff start. There were moments of brilliance, but he took longer than 2.5 seconds to throw on 22 of his pass attempts and threw a game-changing interception deep in his own territory that set up the Bills for an easy touchdown. Granted, his receivers dropped passes throughout the day, and notable downfield drops by Jaylen Waddle and Gesicki could have altered this game in a major way. Both statements can be true: Thompson got little help from his offensive playmakers, and he also did not play particularly well.

Promising/troubling trend: The Dolphins' defense over the past few seasons has been predicated on creating turnovers, but they ranked second-to-last in the NFL this season in takeaways. Sunday's performance was a return to that philosophy. Defensive coordinator Josh Boyer was unafraid to send constant pressure at Allen, forcing three turnovers that all led to points for Miami. On a day when their offense couldn't get much going, the Dolphins played outstanding complementary football. -- Marcel Louis-Jacques