It wasn't pretty, but the Miami Dolphins will take it.
Four days after they lost stud left tackle Branden Albert in a 20-16 loss to the Detroit Lions, the Dolphins re-set, took the field at Sun Life Stadium, and beat the Buffalo Bills in a 22-9 game that was far more about defense than anything else. Joe Philbin's team moved rookie Ja'Wuan James from the right side to Albert's old spot, put guard Dallas Thomas where James had been and dealt fairly well with a Buffalo front four that is as contentious as any in the business.
Quarterback Ryan Tannehill was sacked five times, and 3.5 of those takedowns came from Mario Williams, who had his way with Thomas all night. But at least one of those sacks was directly attributable to Tannehill's ability to get the ball out in time.
Given the new state of their line, the Dolphins wisely went with a shorter passing attack to start. Tannehill completed his first eight passes in a drive that went 14 plays, covered 68 yards and ended in a field goal. It wasn't an explosive statistical performance from Tannehill, who completed 26 of 34 passes for 240 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions (though he lost a fumble), but against a defense this strong, it was more than enough.
"I definitely think I've been playing better," Tannehill told Rich Eisen of the NFL Network after the game. "Obviously, it took me a little while to get comfortable in the offense, [but] the guys around me have really stepped up and played well on offense. Jarvis Landry, Mike Wallace, Brian Hartline -- when you put all that talent on the field, it helps me a lot, and it makes things easier for me."
Credit must be given to first-year offensive coordinator Bill Lazor, a Chip Kelly disciple who seems to better understand how to make Tannehill employ his assets as a player, while minimizing his liabilities. Tannehill is using his mobility more in a productive sense (the Dolphins are actually running a lot of designed plays for Tannehill to get upfield by himself), and the reads are not generally as complex. As it is in Kelly's offense, the idea is to create matchup advantages. Right now, it's working.
"We were West Coast last year, so it was a completely different system," Tannehill said before detailing the differences now. "More zone-read blocking in the run game, all kinds of different zone reading the back and the three-technique, spreading things out in the number system, as opposed to the West Coast system. New concepts, but at the same time, it's been a lot of fun."
And the 6-4 Dolphins, winners of four of their last five games, are still factors in the AFC wild-card race. As for the 5-5 Bills, there are a lot of question marks centered around their veteran quarterback.
1. Kyle Orton turned back into a pumpkin
Since he took over for the embattled EJ Manuel in early October, Kyle Orton had been one of the league's more efficient quarterbacks, at least by passer rating. His 98.4 mark since Week 5 was the NFL's sixth-best. But Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics didn't think as highly of him, ranking him 22nd overall. Those FO stats are also situation-dependent, and tend to penalize quarterbacks who can't make plays consistently beyond the baseline. Against Miami's top-level defense, Orton was reductive at best and awful at worst. He completed 22 of 39 passes for just 193 yards, and though he didn't throw a pick, he didn't throw for any touchdowns, either. The Bills haven't scored a touchdown overall since the first quarter of Sunday's loss to the Chiefs. Orton proved to be what he's always been, a player who can get things done as long as he's not facing dominance from front to back. But that's precisely what he was up against in this contest.
2. Miami's defense is for real
Kevin Coyle's defensive unit must surely be recognized as one of the NFL's best. In this game, rookie receiver Sammy Watkins was almost completely shut down by cornerback Brent Grimes, the Miami defensive front beat the living daylights out of Buffalo's offensive line and Orton was fighting to stay upright most of the time, never mind getting off any major completions. Orton was sacked just twice, but he had to check down constantly, and his decisions were affected by unending pressure. Orton never looked comfortable, underscored by a pair of near-picks. The Dolphins currently rank first against the pass and 11th against the run per FO's numbers, and it's easy to see why. More than Tannehill and the offense, this is the unit that will take the Dolphins as far as they can go this season.
3. It was not a good night for Walt Coleman's officiating crew
Not that the Dolphins wouldn't have won fair and square, but the crew led by Coleman, who's not generally regarded as one of the NFL's sharpest refs, didn't help the Bills at all. There was this intentional grounding call on Orton with 1:11 left in the third quarter, which could easily have been interpreted to a bad route by Watkins. Since the penalty was called with Orton in the end zone, that was called a safety, a call that gave Miami a 12-9 lead.
Then, there was a highly questionable pass interference call on Buffalo cornerback Stephon Gilmore, when it looked as if Gilmore was defending a Tannehill throw to Mike Wallace. That 24-yard penalty took the ball down to the Buffalo 13-yard line. Two plays later, Jarvis Landry made up for a fumble on the post-safety free kick by taking a pass from Tannehill into the end zone ... or did he?
(GIFs courtesy Bleacher Report)
The reviewed touchdown call was upheld, and that was that. Again, the Dolphins were the better team on this night, but the Bills should expect a note from the league about some very interesting calls in this game. Sadly for them, NFL apologies can't take the place of wins.