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Bills survive litany of mistakes as rookie cornerback powers 34-31 win over Dolphins

Josh Allen and Gabe Davis celebrate a Bills touchdown
Buffalo Bills wide receiver Gabe Davis (13), right, is congratulated by quarterback Josh Allen after his touchdown catch during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game against the Miami Dolphins, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

The Bills entered Sunday as the biggest favorite of the entire Wild Card weekend. They looked like it for about one quarter of football, taking a 17-0 lead in just over 17 minutes, but things fell apart quickly. Buffalo turned the ball over three games and gave up seven sacks while barely holding onto a 34-31 win over a short-handed Miami team in one of the longest and sloppiest games you will ever see. 

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It was an indefensibly poor showing for the Bills against a Dolphins team that was starting their third-string quarterback and also missing their starting running back and left guard. 

Buffalo was clearly the more talented team, outgaining Miami 423-231 in the game. Yet they trailed by the middle of the third quarter and were barely able to squeak out a victory because when they should have seized momentum, they made mistakes instead. Time and time again. 

In the second quarter, after Dawson Knox’s second touchdown was controversially overturned and Buffalo settled for a field goal, Tyler Bass kicked the subsequent kickoff out of bounds. Miami started on the 40-yard line and would drive for a field goal. Josh Allen then threw an interception on the next drive, and when Miami went for it on 4th-and-8 on their ensuing possession, linebacker Matt Milano missed an easy tackle and Miami was able to convert and later tack on another score to make it a 17-6 game. 

The Bills seemed to respond when Josh Allen hit rookie Khalil Shakir for a 50-yard pass down to the Miami 10-yard line. Only, Shakir couldn’t maintain possession and it was ruled incomplete which forced a punt that Miami returned down to the Buffalo 28-yard line. Miami’s offense, once again, was held to a field goal, but a drop by Cole Beasley on the next possession led to the second Josh Allen interception of the half, giving Miami the ball on Buffalo’s 18-yard-line.

This time, Miami would convert a touchdown with Skylar Thompson finding Mike Gesicki to tie the game at 17. After the Bills forced a three-and-out on the first drive of the second half, Allen was sacked and fumbled on the first play of the second half and Miami recovered for a touchdown to take a 24-20 lead. 

It was as disastrous a stretch of football as you can play, and Highmark Stadium fell silent. The Bills seemed on the verge of enduring one of the worst playoff losses in history. They needed their MVP-candidate quarterback to save them.

Instead, it was their rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam.

After a Milano sack forced a 3rd-and-19 from Miami’s own 17-yard line. Elam, who was playing full-time snaps after an injury to Dane Jackson, leaped up to pick off a fade intended for Tyreek Hill. It was a huge play for the rookie, who had his best game of the season a few weeks ago against these same Dolphins. 

Allen would then lead a short drive to punch in a touchdown on a pass to Cole Beasley, which gave the Bills back a 27-24 lead. After another forced punt, Allen drove Buffalo 68 yards down the field, capping the drive with a beautiful 23-yard touchdown pass to Gabe Davis to put his team up 34-24.

At the end of the day, Allen finished 23-of-39 for 352 yards with three touchdowns and two interceptions. Gabe Davis had 113 yards and a touchdown, and Stefon Diggs added 114 yards and a touchdown of his own, but they weren’t the players who came up biggest when the spotlight was brightest.

Miami would mount another touchdown drive to cut the Buffalo lead to 34-31 and then forced a Buffalo punt with just 4:24 to play. Down three and with a chance to pull off an epic upset, the Dolphins had a 4th-and-6 on their own 43-yard line. Skylar Thompson rolled out right, looking for tight end Durham Smythe with a chance to extend the drive and keep Miami’s hopes alive. 

Instead, Kaiir Elam was there again. The rookie dove and knocked the pass away, securing the ball for Buffalo on a turnover on downs with just 2:17 left to play. The offense would then run out the clock to secure the victory and allow Buffalo to breathe a sigh of relief. 

It wasn’t a pretty win, but at this stage in the season, a win is all that truly matters. Still, there is a lot to clean up in Buffalo as the same mistakes that haunted this team all season reared their head again today. 

When Miami went to the short-passing game, the Bills missed tackles like they have all season. When Buffalo needed a big pass completion, the offensive line couldn’t hold up, allowing an absurd seven sacks on the day. 

It wasn’t just the players on the field making huge mistakes and miscalculations. On two separate occasions, with the Bills on defense, head coach Sean McDermott rushed to call a timeout right before the ball was snapped. On both occasions, Buffalo wound up getting stops that didn’t stand. 

On the first play, the Dolphins regrouped and scored a touchdown on the next play. The second time it happened, the Bills had stopped Miami on fourth down and were getting the ball back on Miami’s 37-yard-line up by three with eight minutes left. Instead, Miami decided to put and pinned the Bills inside their own 15-yard line. 

The Bills have been overcoming near-disasters all season, from the death of Knox’s brother, to the two blizzards, to season-ending injuries to crucial players, and the life-or-death scare to Damar Hamlin. They hope the playoff win over Miami is just another in a long line of obstacles overcome on the way to a Super Bowl, but the two-seed in the AFC will certainly need to make major changes if they hope to advance deeper into the playoffs. 

They will now have another week to figure that out, and they can thank their rookie cornerback for that opportunity. 

For Buffalo Bills coverage, visit amNY Sports

Josh Allen of the Bills fumbles against the Dolphins
Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen (17), top, loses control of the ball after a hit by Miami Dolphins safety Eric Rowe (21) during the second half of an NFL wild-card playoff football game, Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023, in Orchard Park, N.Y. (AP Photo/Joshua Bessex)