When the Bills run
RB Travis Henry, who needs 43 yards to reach 1,000, has played very well. But Bills have been behind too much for him to be a factor the entire game. Henry ravaged the proud Dolphins defense for 132 yards in the first meeting as the Bills' big offensive line overpowered Dolphins' fast, but undersized front seven. But Henry must get touches. Bills are last in NFL with 22.4 rushing attempts per game.
Dolphins didn't look like the NFL's sixth-ranked run defense the last time they faced Henry. But they are getting much better production from DTs Tim Bowens and Larry Chester, which has freed up MLB Zach Thomas to make more plays. Miami must get off blocks, swarm around the ball and tackle better on the edges to stop Henry.
When the Dolphins run
Dolphins' running game pounded San Diego last week for 225 yards and an impressive 5.0 yards per carry. RB Ricky Williams is running with determination and getting great blocking from an improved offensive line that is healthier than it has been all year. Miami needs to run the ball and control the clock to take pressure off QB Ray Lucas.
Although Bills held Williams below 100 yards in the first meeting, they allowed an average of 147 rush yards during three-game slide. The defensive line and outside linebackers must play better because MLB London Fletcher can't make every tackle. Defensive backs must tackle well against Williams, a big back that gains most of his yards after contact.
When the Bills pass
QB Drew Bledsoe and his receivers have been limited by conservative defenses designed to take away the big play. Offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride must find a way to get WRs Eric Moulds and Peerless Price back into the offense. We may see Moulds and Price run some short crossing routes, which gets them the ball quicker and allow them to use their running ability.
Physical CBs Sam Madison, Patrick Surtain and Jamar Fletcher and a great pass rush (31 sacks) allow Dolphins to play man-to-man coverage. They contained Bills in last game, but gave up 70-yarder to Moulds, who always seems to burn Dolphins' secondary at least once per game. The Bills, who have allowed 38 sacks, better block DE Jason Taylor, who is having best season of career. He has an AFC-leading 11 sacks along with 30 QB pressures and four forced fumbles.
When the Dolphins pass
Lucas now understands his job is to manage the game and avoid mistakes. He hasn't thrown an interception in 94 straight pass attempts. A healthy Chris Chambers' return gives Miami James McKnight's emergence give Dolphins more speed at receiver to stretch Bills' defense. Williams and FB Rob Konrad are threats out of backfield. Rookie TE Randy McMichael is a key red zone target. The Bills have allowed six TDs to tight ends.
Bills have just one interception in four games since Lucas gave them four. Lucas will look for favorable matchups against maligned nickel CB Chris Watson, SS Coy Wire, Fletcher and OLB Eddie Robinson. Lucas was rattled by the blitz the last meeting. Buffalo may have to use same formula since its front four isn't getting much of a pass rush.
The weather could be a factor for both teams. Bills K Mike Hollis is just as unfamiliar with the wintry elements as Miami's Olindo Mare, who has made 24 of 26 field goal attempts against Buffalo. Having a year under his belt here should help P Brian Moorman, who remains among league leaders.
Bills' kickoff and punt coverage barely hung on against the Jets last week, but still allowed too many yards. Travis Minor is no Chad Morton, but he's averaging 25.5 yards to lead Miami to the NFL's No. 2 ranking in kickoff returns. Dedric Ward is solid on punt returns (11.4 yards). Bills still waiting for KR/PR Charlie Rogers to make a bigger contribution. Advantage: Dolphins.
It will be interesting to see how the Bills respond to the pressure of a must-win situation. Bledsoe is too talented to be held down for long, but can the defense stop anyone long enough to get Bledsoe and company on the field? Lucas' confidence is growing, but both of his wins were at home. Can he handle the Bills' defense and the harsh Buffalo weather?
There could be snow in the forecast, which should give the Bills a psychological edge if nothing else. It should be noted that the Dolphins won here the last two years in late November and early December. The Bills must eliminate mistakes. Their 23 penalties for 232 yards are more than double the opposition during last three games.
This should be a tight one Bills desperately need this one. But Dolphins prove they're the best team in AFC East with a 20-17 victory.