The Buffalo Bills and Miami Dolphins are fighting over the same piece of turf. Both teams have carved out surprisingly solid 5-4 starts to the season, mostly out of the limelight. They are nice stories trying to become meaningful contenders. This crowded AFC playoff picture doesn't have room for both of them.
Both fan bases exhibit a streak of fatalism due to so much losing over the last decade. Last week's losses stung. Buffalo dominated for 50 minutes against Kansas City before coughing up a late lead at home. The Dolphins gave up a last minute touchdown drive to an NFC North powerhouse for the second time this year.
I love this Week 11 matchup because it includes two of the five best defensive lines in the league. I love the matchup because it means so much to both teams. In this loaded AFC, 5-5 feels a long way from the playoffs. Here's what to watch for Thursday:
- No quarterback likes pressure, but Ryan Tannehill's play is more dependent on it than most. When Tannehill gets a clean pocket lately, he has been terrific delivering the ball. He does not adapt well when the offensive line in front of him struggles. Tannehill is not afraid to take a hit, but that can be a weakness too. He throws the ball while getting hit too often, and he has a ton of passes batted at the line of scrimmage. For an athletic player that throws well on the move, Tannehill doesn't have a natural feel of how to avoid pressure in the pocket.
- That problem could be exacerbated Thursday because his offensive line has their biggest challenge of the season. Yes, Buffalo's front four is better than Detroit's.
Miami's Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert is out for the season, meaning rookie first-round pick Ja'Wuan James has to move from the right side. That weakens the whole line, especially at right tackle where Dallas Thomas takes over. The Dolphins' offensive line has dramatically improved this season overall, but this is asking a lot.
Buffalo's front four is a wildly talented crew. It's tough to pick who is playing the best, but I'd go with defensive tackle Marcell Dareus. He deserves a Pro Bowl nod, although his teammate Kyle Williams could easily beat him out. Jerry Hughes has somehow made more splashy plays than Mario Williams, who still impresses each week with his strength and rush defense. Miami has its work cut out and offensive coordinator Bill Lazor will try to design quick passes so they don't have to protect much. Tannehill can't hit a deep pass anyhow.
Linebacker Jelani Jenkins makes an instinctive play or three each week that makes it seem like he knows the opposition's play call. Cornerback Brent Grimes can match up with Sammy Wakins. Linebacker Koa Misi has played well lately. Second-year pro Dion Jordan is starting to flash a few athletic plays each week. How many defensive ends could cover Calvin Johnson well in a late-game situation?
- This is a huge game for both teams, but it feels do or die for Miami. Despite the on-field improvement this season, NFL Media's Jeff Darlington notes that this is an organization at a crossroads. A loss would mean a season sweep for Buffalo. The Dolphins travel to Denver next week and still have a trip to New England on the schedule. A playoff team wins this type of game. We'll find out Thursday which AFC East squad has staying power.