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This Is 3–0: How the Dolphins Survived the Heat and Survived the Bills

Mike McDaniel knows some questioned his ability to lead an NFL locker room. After Miami gutted out another big win Sunday, it’s so far, so good.

It was about a month ago, in a conference room near his office in Miami Gardens. New Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel wasn’t merely answering a question about others doubting his ability to fill his new role. He actually raised the topic himself.

He’d heard the whispers that, shorter and slighter than most NFL coaches, he’d struggle to command a team when trouble hit. That he wouldn’t be able to turn a room full of alphas back on the right path. That it was a matter of time before the Yale-educated, 39-year-old run-game savant from San Francisco would be proven to be in over his depth.

McDaniel told me, on a steamy August day, that he was ready.

Dolphins players run off the field celebrating after defeating the Bills

“That’s how I see what the job is, is in the hardest moments where people are gonna be most uncertain about themselves or the team or really everything—that is my moment when I’m supposed to lead,” he said. “That is the moment that gives you purpose. Whatever I become, it is what it is, but I know that I will be trying to be as good as I could possibly be. And to be that, I have to be that person. That’s where you separate yourself.

Why are you the person for the job? Well, that’s defined in those type of moments. That’s what is cool about the position. I’m just waiting for those things to happen all the time, because I know they’re coming. And that’s where you define yourself, really.”

So far, so good. Last week, the Dolphins came back from a 35–14 deficit in Baltimore to win 42–38. This week, the result may have been even more dramatic. They outlasted a loaded Bills team that had looked unstoppable through two weeks in a steam room doubling as Hard Rock Stadium. It added to the two wins McDaniel had already registered over Super Bowl–champion coaches and gave Miami sole possession first place in the AFC East heading toward a Thursday-night showdown with the defending conference champion Bengals.

Even better, when those big moments came, his Dolphins responded in the biggest way.

The newly dubbed Butt Punt happened with 1:37 left. Miami was up 21–17 and in position to force the Bills to drive the field for a touchdown. Instead, Thomas Morstead clanged his kick off the rear end of personal protector Trent Sherfield, and it ricocheted out of the end zone for a safety. Now all the Bills would have to do is return the free kick, get into field goal range to win the game and get out of Florida.

It’s where the worst has happened for the Dolphins in the past. It’s now where, thanks in large part to McDaniel, Miami expects its best.

We’re three weeks in, and we still haven’t had a dud of a Sunday. Which leaves us a lot to get into in this week’s MMQB. In other parts of our coverage we’ll have:

• Lamar Jackson, Kirk Cousins and the Colts in the Three Deep.

• Jalen Hurts’s explosion topping Ten Takeaways.

• The reason why Tyler Van Dyke is the poster boy for the 2023 quarterback class to lead off Six From Saturday.

And a whole lot more, after we get you fully caught up on everything that went down in Miami in The Lead.

Mike McDaniel calls out during the Dolphins' win over the Bills

Mike McDaniel and his team have been up to the task so far.

The easy thing for McDaniel to do this week would’ve been to build up the game against the Bills as a chance for his Dolphins to announce their arrival as a true AFC contender. That this would be the turning point, with the hope that the team would handle the week with that sort of intensity and then come out of it validating those season-opening wins over the Patriots and Ravens.

The problem with that, though, would go back to McDaniel’s feeling on the moments that would define him and ultimately his team. Long story short, if Miami put so much significance into snapping a seven-game losing streak to the Bills and then failed to do it, where would that leave the Dolphins? And even if they found a way to win, where would that leave the players with a four-day turnaround heading into their Thursday-night game?

So McDaniel approached it with an easy confidence, telling his players they’d done the right things to this point, early in the season, and they just had to keep doing the right things. And that while the game against the Bills would give them a chance to see how far they’ve come and give them a nice measuring stick, when it was over, the plan would remain the same.

“It’s getting the guys to not really think about what things have been, and just believing in the process we're going through and believing in what we are currently as a team,” says one staffer. “And kind of just going out there and playing free, not really being tight about anything, just letting people be themselves and go play for each other. The guys have done that, man. We have quality players on the team that are capable of playing at a high level.”

So when the Dolphins played solid defense on the game’s first series and the Bills still went 75 yards in 10 plays, it wasn’t the end of the world, nor was punting from their own 35 on the next possession. And sure enough, even though Buffalo had run nearly twice as many plays as Miami in the first half (42–23), had nearly twice as many yards (216–109) and had 16 first downs to Miami’s 10, the Dolphins hung tough and went into the half tied at 14.

It happened mostly because the Dolphins took advantage of their own opportunities—one was scoring a touchdown three plays after a Jevon Holland strip sack of Josh Allen, recovered by Melvin Ingram—and killed those of the Bills, stopping two drives that advanced into Miami territory without points (not including the game’s final possession, on which the clock ran out).

Jevon Holland strips the ball from Josh Allen during the Dolphins' win over the Bills

Miami's defense was on the field for 90 plays on Sunday—Holland's first-quarter strip sack of Allen was their biggest play.

And from there, after Tua Tagovailoa got knocked down and was temporarily out of the game (we’ll have more on that in the Takeaways), the Dolphins’ defense had to win the day.

Early in the game, Miami, as it has under Josh Boyer, tried to throw a bevy of blitz looks at Allen. But the Bills had schematic answers, and so the Dolphins did adjust some of their game plan on the fly and got less aggressive in getting after Allen as the game wore on. But the larger strategy stayed the same.

The main thing was to try to, in football terms, change the picture constantly, and do it in a way where Allen would be looking at one thing presnap and something else postsnap. And the Dolphins also stuck their all-world corner, Xavien Howard, on Stefon Diggs, to force Allen to go deeper into his progressions. The hope then was that Allen would revert to playing street ball and the Dolphins would be disciplined and not get worn out.

That, of course, was challenging because chasing and tackling Allen in million-degree heat is a little more than a light workout. Still, there the Dolphins were, getting four stops after the Bills got to first-and-goal from the Miami 2 with 2:36 left. And then the Butt Punt happened, and McDaniel got the moment he was waiting for.

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No coach wants what happened with Morstead at the end of the game. The Dolphins’ defense was, as you’d expect, gassed, and sending them back out there three plays after the Bills had run off an 17-play drive (the one that was stopped at the goal line) wasn’t how anyone drew it up.

But it was where conditioning in the South Florida heat all summer would pay off, as would the staff’s approach to direct the players to keep chipping away at what worked.

Holland and Nik Needham made plays early in the drive to run precious seconds off the clock and, in the end, it came down to the Dolphins’ simply outlasting the powerful Bills late. A holding penalty with under 20 seconds left pushed Buffalo back over midfield and into its own territory. On the final play, Isaiah McKenzie might have had the sideline, but he tried to shake a defender and got hemmed inbounds as a result, ending the game.

Christian Wilkins and Robert Hunt celebrate the Dolphins' win over the Bills.

And so McDaniel had another of those moments he’d hoped would come, where his team was facing adversity against a top opponent and was equal to it.

This, of course, is just 3–0. A lot can, and will, change over the next three months.

But for now, Miami is succeeding where it had often failed in the recent past. And as far as significant steps that could be taken by McDaniel at this early a juncture, this was a pretty big one.

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