By all accounts, the Dolphins had no business winning their Super Wild Card Weekend matchup with the Bills.
Because of injuries, they were down their top two quarterbacks and forced to start seventh-round rookie Skylar Thompson instead. That's not even mentioning other injuries, particularly along the offensive line. When you stack that against a Bills club that is among the betting favorites to win the Super Bowl and features one of the top defenses in the league along with an MVP-caliber quarterback in Josh Allen, it was no surprise to see them as the biggest underdog in the history of the wild-card round.
However, as Han Solo once said, "Never tell me the odds."
Yes, the Dolphins' season came to a close on Sunday as the Bills were able to walk away with the 34-31 win, but it wasn't the two-score trouncing that the oddsmakers expected. In the sour sting of defeat, Miami should still feel encouraged about where this organization is going.
However, let's first look at the warts from this game that showed the club's inexperience both under center and on the sideline with first-year head coach Mike McDaniel. Procedurally, this looked like an inexperienced unit. Despite not only hanging around but leading this game for periods of time, the Dolphins let an opportunity to have the biggest upset of the weekend fall through their fingers, headlined by a total of seven penalties.
Specifically, there were multiple instances in the fourth quarter where the simple lack of awareness regarding the play clock proved to be a death blow. The most egregious came as they trailed be three with just over three minutes to play in regulation and were faced with a fourth-and-1 situation at midfield. Because of an injury on the Bills, Miami had nearly a minute in real-time to get the pivotal play in, line up and try to keep its season alive. However, the Dolphins were still getting their substitutions in as the play clock ticked inside 10 seconds and they couldn't get the snap off in time, so they were called for a delay of game, turning a fourth-and-1 into a fourth-and-5, which they were unable to convert.
Brutal sequence for Mike McDaniel and the Dolphins on 4th and 1. Play clock resets, still can’t get it in on time to Skylar Thompson. There must be a better way to do this. pic.twitter.com/3KJCwujVU2— Matt Fitzgerald (@MattFitz_gerald) January 15, 2023
After that blunder, and a failed fourth-down attempt, the offense never touched the ball again.
They also faced a similar situation on the previous possession as they lined up to go for it on a fourth-and-5 play from their 38-yard line, but a timeout called by Bills head coach Sean McDermott not only bailed them out from a possible penalty, but what would have been a failed conversion. Once given new life in that situation, McDaniel elected to punt the ball away.
Overall, these missed opportunities emphasize to a rookie head coach how finely tuned you need to be in every facet when it comes to winning in the postseason. While it wasn't exactly a finely tuned machine late, the Dolphins have wrapped up what should still be considered a successful season that lays the groundwork going forward.
Of course, the biggest piece to that equation is at quarterback, and specifically with Tua Tagovailoa. After suffering multiple concussions this season, medical professionals reportedly say that he will be ready and able to play next season. Coming into the year, the question in Miami was whether or not the Dolphins would be in the QB market at this time, but Tagovailoa's play under McDaniel this season has shown that he can be a player they can build around under center.
With Tagovailoa starting this season, the Dolphins were 8-5, averaged 25.5 points per game, and the team's 6.5 yards per play average was the highest by any starting quarterback this season (min. 10 starts). When it was either Thompson or Bridgewater, the Dolphins offense cratered and averaged just 16.3 points in the regular season. With that in mind, the most important position is no longer Miami's most important offseason need to upgrade.
With Tagovailoa back and a healthy offensive line in front of him, the offense should go back to being a feared unit in 2023 and nothing like the one that averaged 3.3 yards per play in this latest playoff loss.
Meanwhile, Miami's defense was able to give it to Josh Allen at various points in this game, despite the 34 points scored by Buffalo suggesting otherwise. It forced him into three turnovers on the day, including a strip fumble recovery that was returned for a touchdown at the start of the second half. The Dolphins sacked Allen seven times and forced arguably the most feared offense in the NFL to either punt or turn the ball over on five of its eight offensive possessions in the second half.
Jaelan Phillips (nine tackles and three quarterback hits vs. Bills) and Christian Wilkins (four tackles and a sack) are two young pieces this defense will continue to build around, and the secondary could also get a notable boost in 2023 with the potential return of star corner Byron Jones, who missed the year due to injury.
Health permitting, the pieces are in place across the roster for Miami to be a fixture within the playoff conversation for the next few seasons to come. That includes the dynamic duo of wide receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle.
While this latest loss did highlight some of the inexperience by McDaniel, it's worth noting that this rebuild is just coming out of its infancy and will be better served for playing in tough losses like the one they just endured on Sunday at Orchard Park in the future.