Thursday night's AFC East showdown between the Miami Dolphins (4-5) and Buffalo Bills (3-6) is shaping up to be something of an elimination game on NFL Network (8:20 p.m. ET). While both teams have been competitive at times this season, a lack of consistency has kept either squad from stringing together enough victories to make a strong push for the division crown. The New England Patriots are firmly entrenched atop the AFC East, so the winner of this game likely will need to build enough momentum to make a run at one of the wild-card berths in the conference.
Given the "win or go home" aura surrounding this matchup, the atmosphere in Ralph Wilson Stadium should reach a fever pitch.
Here are three questions heading into this game:
1) Will the Bills finally unleash C.J. Spiller?
The Bills made Spiller the ninth overall pick in the 2010 NFL Draft with every intention of using him as their designated playmaker on offense. Spiller got off to a slow start as a pro, but in his third season, he's emerged as one of the most explosive players in the NFL, averaging 8.1 yards per touch and scoring five touchdowns. The Bills, however, have yet to make him the focal point of their offense. With the season now hanging in the balance, it could be time for Chan Gailey to feed Spiller and see if the explosive playmaker can jump-start the Bills' sagging attack. When Spiller has received 11 or more touches this season, he's amassed 100 or more yards from scrimmage; putting the ball in his hands could be part of a winning strategy for the Bills.
2) Will Ryan Tannehill bounce back from his worst performance as a pro?
Tannehill has performed well for the Dolphins as a first-year starter, but his confidence might have been shaken by a rough outing against the Tennessee Titans. In last Sunday's 37-3 loss, Tannehill tossed three interceptions and looked overwhelmed by the combination of pressure and coverage that the Titans threw at him. Occasional struggles are to be expected for the rookie quarterback; how well he responds to them will heavily impact the Dolphins' fledgling playoff hopes. Tannehill could get back on track against a Bills defense that has been shredded repeatedly by pinpoint passers; he must simply trust his reads and make sound decisions with the ball. If Tannehill can move past last week's disappointing performance and continue to be aggressive, he should be able to attack a vulnerable secondary and help the Dolphins score enough points to get out of Buffalo with a hard-earned division win.
3) Can Reggie Bush correct his course?
Before the season started, Bush openly discussed the possibility of leading the NFL in rushing. He appeared to be on his way after totaling 302 rushing yards through the first three weeks, but Bush has dramatically fallen off since suffering an injury in Week 3. Against the Titans, he coughed up his second lost fumble in the past three games, leading to an unexpected -- though likely temporary -- benching. The Dolphins need Bush to re-emerge as an explosive multipurpose threat in the backfield. If Bush can surpass the 100-yard mark in 18-20 carries and add a few receptions in the passing game, the Dolphins could make life difficult for the Bills' defense Thursday night.
The beat-down the Dolphins suffered at the hands of the Titans last Sunday overshadowed the fact that Miami had been playing well over the previous month. Against a Bills squad that has struggled to finish off opponents, the Dolphins will get solid performances from Ryan Tannehill and Reggie Bush and get back on track. Their defense is also poised to get after Buffalo quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick; things could get ugly for the Bills before this one is over.