Some Takeaways and Notes from the Miami Dolphins 22-9 Thursday Night Football Win over the Buffalo Bills

Update, via Football outsiders, as quoted by ESPN:

“S—, we’re going to go out and beat that ass. Point blank. Period.”

-Said by a player in advance of Thursday Night’s Bills Dolphins match-up, from what turned out to be the losing team in 22-9 loss; a player who also left the game with a broken bone in the first quarter. 

_______

In a key Thursday Night Football divisional match-up, the Buffalo Bills extended their first half lead to 9-3 early in the third quarter, before the Miami Dolphins scored 19 unanswered points to emerge victorious for the 22-9 win.

The game pitted the worst and third worst NFL teams in red zone touchdown efficiency against each other. (Side note: though it’s often a mistake to kick field goals from in close to the end zone (see below), don’t read too much into red zone efficiency along as an arbiter of a team’s skill level: The club ranked no 1 overall, the Oakland Raiders, is 0-9; haven’t kept it close in most games; and certainly haven’t even gotten to the red zone much either.)

Yet true to form, the Bills, worst in the league in red zone TD efficiency, kicked a field goal from the 2 1/2 yard line late in the second quarter to take a 6-3, not 10-3, lead.

This is a decision that is almost always a mistake: While technical sounding, but broken down simply, the 7 point value of the TD plus the extra point obtained by a successful conversion, times the chances of getting the TD, plus the value of leaving one’s opponent somewhere inside the 2 yard line in the event the team gets stopped, times the chances of that happening, is usually greater than the 3 points a team gets for the short field goal; even in defensive battles.

(For instance, if a team is a very low 40% to make the TD, and the value of leaving an opponent on the 1 yard line – due to defensive field position versus a kickoff, the increased chance of a backed up punter and shortened punt and big return, and long shot at a safety and 2 points plus return of possession – is, say, a very moderate 1 point, then the value of going for it would be .4(7) + .6(1) = 3.4 points. 4.1 points if it’s an average game and the chance of the TD is in the normal range of about 50%.)

And if a team needs to “get points” and makes a poor strategic decision that has less overall value just to feel good, it has bigger problems.

But regardless, this vintage and very routine “playing not to lose” decision by the Bills probably had little to do with their eventual loss in the game. And it was a somewhat minor mistake, if anything, in a game where the defenses were better than the offenses, and that had been low scoring.

Yet on the other hand, the Dolphins made a truly awful strategic mistake a few minutes later, albeit again one that will only wind up mattering in the long run as an accumulation of all such mistakes and other factors and reflect in their record – versus what it could be with better decision making – over time.

But, their similar red zone struggles aside, the division rivals came into the game with identical winning 5-4 records. Yet the game, as key as it was for both teams, was even more so for one of them than the other. Here’s why:

Earlier in the season the Bills, who are last in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency, defeated the Dolphins in Buffalo 29-10 in week 2 on the strength of 5 Dan Carpenter field goals, plus two touchdowns. And with their loss last night, the Bills road to a wild card spot, now at 5-5, is tougher than the Dolphins at 6-4.

Neither team really has a good  chance of catching the New England Patriots this season, given the Patriots 7-2 record, the strength of their team, and their consistent pattern of performance year in and year out  under head coach Bill Belichick and starting quarterback Tom Brady. (Although the Dolphins, who have already beaten them and still play them again in New England, now in theory could; it will get even more interesting if the Patriots manage to finally lose to the Andrew Luck led Indianapolis Colts this upcoming Sunday; putting the Dolphins only one game back, with that key game up in New England between the two teams still to be played.)

But had Buffalo won last night, and the two teams later finished up the season tied for the last wild card spot, the Dolphins would stand a much greater chance of missing the playoffs by having been swept by the Bills: If it came down to a two way tie between Buffalo and Miami, Buffalo would be in, and Miami would be out, by virtue of having beaten Miami heads up (or in this case, heads up twice).

That means that as far as the Bills go, a loss by Miami would have effectively put the Dolphins two games back of them. And even if the wild card came down to a three way tie, the first tie breaker is still head to head competition; so if one of the three teams with the same record vying for a wild card spot had beaten the other two, that team would get the spot.

So if Buffalo, Miami and a third team wound up tied (say for example all with identical 9-7 records) and Buffalo also beat that other team, they would go. And even if Buffalo fell out of the playoff hunt, a loss would have given Miami yet another division loss, which is the second tie breaker after any games played head to head.

Both teams needed the win badly last night; but Miami needed it a little bit more. And they got it. But not without, once again, making one of the most awful strategic decisions possible (if a little under the radar). And though they did seem to outplay Buffalo, a few things did also break their way.

This included the ankle of Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin, the first cornerback taken in the 2008 NFL draft (11th overall); which, in a bit of bad luck for the Bills, broke in the first quarter. (Update: McKelvin is also the author of the updated quote at the top of this post about beating ass, which sounds more like motivational material for the Bills’ opponents, than his own team.)

The Dolphins were also dealing with some leg injuries themselves, however. Their offensive line had pass blocking issues last season, and this year’s pre-season signing of former Chiefs tackle Branden Albert (to a large, 5 year, $47 million contract no less), was a big improvement – as Albert has been playing at a high level. But in the Dolphins last minute loss to the Lions last week, Albert tore his ACL and MCL.

As a result, the Dolphins switched right tackle Ju’Wuan James, a rookie selected 19th in this year’s draft, over to the left. They then moved right guard Dallas Thomas to right tackle, where he struggled, as former No. 1 overall draft pick Mario Williams of the Bills – part of a defensive line that came into the game leading the NFL in sacks – had 3 1/2 of the Bills 5 sacks lined up against him.

(The Dolphins were also missing starting left guard Daryn Colledge, out for his third straigtht game. And CB Cortland Finnegan, his first game missed as a Dolphin.  Note that the Bills have two very versatile, dangerous players out of the backfield. But one of them, CJ Spiller, is out with a broken collarbone, although on the IR designated to return list, he could theoretically play again this season. Their other outstanding and versatile back, Fred Jackson, was injured in the same October 19 game versus the Vikings as Spiller. He returned in week 10 to face the Chiefs (although he was limited in action, rushing only three times and catching four passes), but was also out for this game again as well.)

But a few other minor breaks for the Dolphins in this game (but no more broken bones), included a 47 yard field goal attempt by Bills kicker Dan Carpenter that barely missed wide left. (Carpenter also made a 46 yarder with 6:31 left in the 3rd quarter to give the Bills a 9-3 lead. That kick came after an offsides on a 3rd and 10 moved Buffalo down to the 28 yard line where they again went three successive plays with zero total yards netted (making it six plays in total, not counting the Dolphins offsides) – although Carpenter’s kick from 46 was solid, and would have been good from 51. Carpenter also used to play for the Dolphins; several seasons ago, as a Dolphin, he missed four field goals in a tight 17-14 loss to the Bills in a game that put Miami at an odd 1-6 at home versus 6-1 on the road for the season, and ended their shot at the playoffs.)

And the game included a borderline, but probably correct, intentional grounding call on quarterback Kyle Orton that resulted in a safety. (Orton, under heavy pressure and off his back foot with just over a minute left to go in the 3rd quarter, threw high down the left side lines, since he knew rookie wide receiver phenom Sammy  Watkins was heading that way – but he also had no choice. Watkins had also barely made his break, and was far away from the area where the ball landed. Orton passionately pleaded his case to the officials – something you don’t see that often because usually intentional grounding is pretty obvious when it is called – but to no avail.)

The game also included a controversial pass interference call not long after that: After the free kick following the Bills Safety, Dolphins rookie 2nd round pick wide receiver and kick returner Jarvis Landry fumbled the return, and the Bills recovered on the Dolphins 39 yard line.

Then, after Carpenter’s just wide left 47 yard field goal attempt 5 plays later, the Dolphins drove 26 yards down to the Buffalo 37, where on 2nd down Ryan Tannehill threw to receiver Mike Wallace, who was covered by Stephen Gilmore.

Gilmore shot up the 2012 NFL draft charts after the conclusion of the 2011 college season, and, possibly influenced by all the hype, the Bills over reached for him in the draft, although he has been a solid player. And here Gilmore made what looked like an absolutely perfectly timed pass defense. But the officiating crew didn’t think so.

Even under replay it was extremely hard to see if the 2012 10th overall pick arrived early, as the forward movement of Wallace’s body from any impact was hard to discern prior to the ball arriving, and thus suggests that the call was probably an over reach by the officials. (Gilmore may have arrived a split second early – which in real time appeared instantaneous – but he seemed careful to pull back his chest to avoid any significant contact, and instead reached around to help deflect away the ball, again with minimal contact.)

But the questionable flag turned what would have been a 3rd and 6 from the Bills 37 yard line into a 1st and 10 from the Bills 13.

After that probably problematic pass defense penalty, the Dolphins gained 5 more yards to the 8, where on a 2nd and 5 Tannehill hit the same Jarvis Landry on a quick out. Landry had a small window to about the 6 yard line, with likely extension to the 5 if he stretched accordingly; and on these types of plays receivers usually bolt to the outside and try to pick up the 1st or at least get very close if they can.

Landry, however, sensing this and the defense’s awareness of it, started to plunge to the sidelines, and then, in a somewhat brilliant move (and miles more brilliant than his fumble not too many minutes earlier), stopped short and hesitated before very slightly angling back inside and accelerating toward the end zone where he ultimately half dove, half extended for the goal line, while finally being tackled from behind.

It was a fantastic play, and one that not only caught the defense by surprise, but probably most of those watching the game as well.

Ruled a touchdown, there was no appropriate angle to ascertain with any clarity whether the ball had actually broken the goal line before Landry’s knee hit the ground. And as former officiating great and current game commentator Mike Carey aptly put it, it seemed like he was just short, but it wasn’t clear so the call should probably be upheld. (Carey used the term “irrefutable” as called for by the rules, but in actual practice the standard for reversal seems to be “clear” – still a strong standard, but a hair below “irrefutable” as a matter of practicality).

Immediately after his apparent score, the rookie wide receiver was understandably excited to see his team now jump out to an also apparent two score lead with just under a quarter left to play, and to have played such a pivotal role to atone for his earlier botchery. And his post play celebration was excited, then muted by the replay review.

While the play was more likely than not short of the goal line by a few inches (which would have made it a 1st and goal just outside of the end zone), the touchdown ruling on the field, and likely for the same reasons Carey laid out, was upheld, and Landry’s celebratory dance resumed: This time in unmitigated exultation at, if not his redemption, at least the fact that barring a major turnaround, it would likely not wind up costing his team the game.

Visibly charmed by the ultimate outcome, Landry also had some wise words after the game regarding his earlier fumble, noting that mistakes like that (although he may have used the highly questionable adjective “little” before the word mistake) “cost teams games.” It was aptly put.

Football has all sorts of things break one way or another; most of these happenstances in this game were relatively minor, in so far as they go; and given the way the two teams played, it is possible that had the game been re run multiple times, the Dolphins would have won more often than the Bills, and probably played the better game overall. (And one would imagine, had they seen McKelvin’s raucous comment, maybe even with a little bit of extra attitude toward their Bills opponent.)  They certainly did so in the second half, when their defense really clamped down.But despite the score, the game was close enough that had a few breaks gone the Bills way, the Dolphins probably would have pulled it out.

But that’s the way it goes for a lot of games in the NFL. (Although this is apparently not fully appreciated Redskins head coach Jay Gruden.) And just as in their week 10 loss to the Chiefs, where, unlike in this game, the Bills did outplay their opponents, they weren’t able to get it done in the end – or, in this game, show much signs of at least making it close.

And ultimately, regardless of how it evolved, that signals a solid, and legitimate victory for the Dolphins (who held the Bills to 46 and 47 yard field goal tries in the second half); and some interesting questions regarding how each team will perform moving forward.

The Dolphins seem to be a borderline playoff team, but the loss of their high acquisition left tackle, on a line that has little depth, could be problematic.

It’s too bad, because there was an outside chance that game coming up at New England in week 15 could turn out to be mighty interesting. Particularly since outside of their week 12 game at Denver, where it is extremely hard to win, all of the remaining Dolphins games are reasonably winnable – and more so if they had Albert.

 

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One thought on “Some Takeaways and Notes from the Miami Dolphins 22-9 Thursday Night Football Win over the Buffalo Bills

  1. Pingback: Week 11 NFL Picks, And Brief Recap of Week 10 Picks « NFL Football Strategy

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