Defense helps Bills down Dolphins, but where do those teams go from here?
Will Thursday night's 19-14 Buffalo win over Miami (RECAP | BOX) be a game that we look back as critical come the end of the season? Or will it drift into the endless depths of NFL history, nothing more than a somewhat entertaining game between two struggling rivals?
Because we won't know what this result means for the Bills and Dolphins, both 4-6 now, until a few more questions are answered, it's a bit like trying to decide if a movie is Oscar-worthy based on the trailer alone.
At the top of the list: Did the Bills' defense, which entered Thursday as the league's worst, finally solve its problems? Is Miami done, having scored just one touchdown in its last 10 quarters? Can Daniel Day Lewis pull off a Lincoln portrayal?
Wait ... scratch that last one.
Buffalo had lost three straight heading into this one, so it was essentially do-or-die for the home team. The Bills' response wasn't exactly the stuff of legends -- 250 total yards, four field goals on four red zone trips, no points in the second half.
But it was enough, mainly because that much-maligned defense stepped up in a big way. The Bills held Miami to 50 yards in the first half, and the Dolphins did not cross midfield on offense until the 3:45 mark of the third quarter.
"They (the defense) did a great job," Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick told the NFL Network. "We didn't score touchdowns in the red zone, so we didn't score as many points as we wanted. They kept us in it all night, and the two turnovers at the end proved to the deciding factor."
While the Buffalo defense took charge late, it was special teams that carried the show early. The Bills scored first on a 79-yard Leodis McKelvin punt return, then Miami's Marcus Thigpen answered later with a 96-yard kickoff return for a score.
The Bills still led at that point, 10-7, and they asked C.J. Spiller to help bring it home.
Taking over starting running back duties for an injured Fred Jackson, Spiller proved what most people had been saying for several weeks: that he should be the featured weapon in Buffalo's ground game. He finished with 91 yards rushing and 130 total.
"I answered the critics tonight," Spiller said on the NFL Network's postgame show. "I showed them I could tote it 20 plus times. ...
"When somebody questions you as a man, I take that to heart. People saying I'm too small, I can't do it ... I could've toted it 30 times tonight if I wanted to."
Miami's big-play back did not have nearly as much success. Reggie Bush, off being benched for fumbling in Week 10, carried the ball four times for minus-three yards in the first half. He finished with just 20 yards rushing total on 10 carries, while backup Daniel Thomas added 33 on 12 attempts -- a massive improvement for a Bills defense that surrendered 1,473 yards on the ground over the season's first 10 weeks, the most in the league.
Tip your caps to the Buffalo defense, sure, but what has happened to Miami's offense? With Bush rolling and rookie QB Ryan Tannehill surprising his critics, the Dolphins raced out to a 4-3 start this season.
Then, the walls crumbled.
Until Davone Bess caught a TD pass from Tannehill in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins had gone nearly 10 quarters without a touchdown -- that drought leading to a loss at Indianapolis in Week 9 and an embarrassing 34-point setback against Tennessee last Sunday.
Because of those struggles, plus Thursday's defeat, the Dolphins sit on the outskirts of the playoff race. Right alongside a Buffalo team that, thanks to a favorable closing schedule, could still squeak back into the playoff picture.
"We had a lot of urgency, it being a division game, Thursday night, in front of a great home crowd," Fitzpatrick said. "It was a great job ... good team victory today."
So, what does it all mean?
For now, it keeps the Bills alive in the AFC wild-card race -- believe it or not, they sit in second place in the AFC East after this victory. Next week's trip to Indianapolis suddenly looms large, especially if the 6-3 Colts stumble at New England on Sunday.
Given that they have the same 4-6 record as Buffalo, the Dolphins technically still have a shot, too. Their finishing stretch, however, appears much more daunting, what with a pair of games against New England, a Week 12 meeting with Seattle and a trip to San Francisco.
That said, we can only decipher so much from the information provided. The Dolphins and especially the Bills still have plenty of work to do and time to do it.Will Thursday's result alter the AFC playoff picture in any meaningful way? It all depends on what happens from here.