If any team in the NFL knows the formula, it’s the Bills. They were the team that was intent on imposing their will at the line of scrimmage, the team that played the old-fashioned way with a marginal quarterback. It proved to be effective during their four-game winning streak.
And it also led to their doom Sunday, when the Dolphins arrived with their own ground attack and pounded the Bills into submission during a 28-25 victory at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami. Change a few names, switch teams, and the Bills caught the business end of their own strategy.
Jay Ajayi showed what made LeSean McCoy so effective during the Bills’ four-game winning streak. He shredded the Bills for 214 yards rushing, giving him 200-plus yards on the ground in consecutive weeks. Miami’s offensive line wore down Buffalo, much the way Buffalo’s line did for McCoy during their turnaround.
And when Ajayi needed a break after cramping up with about four minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins had an answer. They inserted Damien Williams, their version of Mike Gillislee, who came off the bench and carried four Bills’ defenders into the end zone on a 12-yard touchdown run and a 21-17 lead.
Time of possession: Miami 37:02, Buffalo 22:58.
The Bills’ defense was exhausted after spending too much time on the field, particularly in the first half. It was evident when the D-line was getting blown off the ball in the second half. If that wasn’t enough, it was obvious when they started missing tackles in the fourth quarter.
Buffalo was fried.
And it showed.
Miami dominated and outscored Buffalo, 22-15, in the final 15 minutes. Ryan Tannehill put the game away when he found Kenny Stills on a 66-yard touchdown pass with 2:24 remaining. The Bills were late making the play on Stills’ touchdown, and missed a tackle, ending any illusion of a comeback.
Buffalo was looking to push its record to 5-2 with a critical game against the Patriots next week at New Era Field. Instead, the Bills fell to 4-3 and invited the Dolphins back into the AFC East race. After four straight victories, trouble looms for the Bills before the bye week with New England and Seattle waiting for them.
Is this where Buffalo's season goes the other way?
The Bills weren’t in position to overlook anybody (see: playoff drought), but they also couldn’t dismiss the Patriots’ visit next weekend. The matchup has been hanging in the backdrop since the Bills became the first team to shut out the Patriots at Gillette Stadium. But that was New England without Tom Brady.
Buffalo didn’t have its top-rated rushing attack in full working order Sunday. McCoy was hampered by a hamstring injury, and he left in the third quarter. Miami didn’t play to its weakness in the running game. The Dolphins, who were second-last against the run, shut down the Bills on the ground Sunday.
The Bills had been fine without Marcell Dareus, but they could have used him in some form Sunday. Dareus, suspended for the first four games for violating the NFL's substance-abuse policy, missed his third straight game with a hamstring injury.
It seemed a matter of time when the Dolphins’ ground-and-pound attack with Ajayi, their distinct advantage in time of possession and the heat would catch up to the Bills.
McCoy was the NFL’s second-leading rusher with 587 yards and was averaging 5.6 yard per carry through six games. No player in the league has been more valuable to their teams than McCoy to the Bills. Ajayi has been more effective in leading the Dolphins to two consecutive wins.
Tannehill had a 2-6 record with a 75.6 quarterback rating in his career against the Bills. He was sacked 27 times in the eight meetings before Sunday. He had thrown for 250 yards or less six times. It wasn’t like the five-year veteran struck fear into Buffalo’s defense. Then again, neither did Ajayi.
At the rate he was going Sunday while shredding the Bills defense in the first half, it appeared he was headed for another big day.
Jarvis Landry was fortunate he wasn’t thrown out for a flagrant crackback block he unleashed on Aaron Williams in the first half. The NFL talks big about cutting down on head-to-head fouls, but 15 yards wasn’t enough Sunday. He should have been handcuffed and thrown in prison for that cheap shot.
Landry was halfway to an ejection earlier in the game for spinning the football along the Bills’ sideline after making a catch. But the hit that dropped Williams was not punishable by ejection. The NFL acts like it has come down hard on helmet-to-helmet hits. Landry’s hit was attempted decapitation.
If he was hurting in the first half, and it appeared he was, McCoy felt healthy enough to play. His bigger problem was finding room, which had been a gateway during the four-game winning streak. McCoy had only 9 yards on six carries in the first two quarters, but he’s only one facet of their running game.
It became apparent last season that Taylor needed to be on the move to maximize his effectiveness. He was a major reason, and often overlooked, for the Bills leading the NFL in rushing in 2015. He has made better decisions when running the ball since Anthony Lynn took over as offensive coordinator.
Taylor took off again Sunday when he scored off a read option in the second quarter for a 10-3 lead. Taylor is very efficient with his ball-handling, and he faked out half the stadium – not to mention the Dolphins – before finding a hole off right tackle. He scored on a similar play last week against San Francisco.
If the Bills were going to win, he needed to play that way. And if he played that way, the Bills increased their chances of winning. But with the Bills running game going nowhere, Taylor was thrust into a situation in which he needed win a game with his arm.
By then, the Bills had lost their legs.