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The memory remains both vivid and painful. The Dolphins had just beaten the New England Patriots last December at Sun Life Stadium. They travelled to Buffalo the next week, just needing a victory to get into the playoffs. They responded with an ugly 19-0 loss, a performance so uninspired it left Joe Philbin searching for answers long into the offseason.
“We just didn’t show up with the right mindset that day,” Philbin told me in an interview before training camp began.
So here we go again. The Dolphins once again have beaten the Patriots at Sun Life Stadium. Once again are feeling awfully good about themselves. Once again are traveling to Buffalo the following Sunday, which happens to be this Sunday. Once again need a victory over the Bills to further validate what happened against the Patriots.
Did they learn their lesson? We’re about to find out.
No, this may not have the sex appeal of a game against Tom Brady and the Patriots. But it is essential, as this team tries to grow into something special, to follow last Sunday’s performance with another strong showing. To do it in Buffalo, where so many horror stories have surfaced over the years, would both ease the pain of what happened last December as well as further cement the positives that surfaced in the season opener.
This is the challenge facing these Dolphins. Put together two victories to start the season. Make a statement against another AFC East team. And do it against a Buffalo team that has had your number far too long.
Someone asked me this week if there is a concern that the Dolphins will take this game too lightly. My response: Are you kidding? On the second week of the season? In Buffalo? Against a team that won at Chicago a week ago? We saw plenty of reasons last Sunday to think that this is a different Dolphins team with a different mindset and far more talent. Sunday could give us further proof. That underlines the importance of this game.
This will be a difficult test. Like the Dolphins, the Bills enter with more talent than they had in a while. Like the Dolphins they want to validate a 1-0 start.
There’s a lot to break down in this game, but the way I see it one concern dominates all others. The Bills arguably have the best defensive line in the league. The Dolphins have five new starters on their offensive line. Focus on this matchup. It probably was the deciding factor in each game, both Dolphins losses, last season.
The offensive line did well last week against the Patriots. The running game produced almost 200 yards. Ryan Tannehill was sacked just once. But as proficient as the Patriots are on defense, they simply do not have a front four that can approach the Bills.
Remember the names: Mario Williams, Kyle Williams, Marcell Dareus and Jerry Hughes. Each poses unique challenges. Each has the ability to dominate. It was Mario Williams, you may recall, who had the game-defining play in the first game last season against the Dolphins. This time he goes up against left tackle Brandon Albert, clearly a more formidable test.
“Got to put on our hard hats against those guys,” Albert says.
We feel good right now about the Dolphins offensive line, and we should. But we’ll know a lot more after they face the Bills.
I am not foolish enough to expect a dominating performance by the offensive line. What I would take, though, is enough of a standoff to bring other factors into play. Like Tannehill against the Bills secondary. Like Cameron Wake and Olivier Vernon honing in on quarterback E.J. Manuel. Like Knowshon Moreno doing what he did against the Patriots.
But it will start up front and that will dictate the importance of everything else. The Dolphins would love to come back to South Florida at 2-0 and would probably love just as much to clear an imposing hurdle they failed to clear a season ago.
(On Monday, AC in the AM breaks down what happened against the Bills.)
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