ORCHARD PARK, NY — The referee warned Buffalo Bills fans inside Highmark Stadium like he was a teacher berating school kids during recess.
If their flying snowballs hit a Miami Dolphins player in live action, the umpire said, the Bills would be penalized 15 yards. Security guards in fluorescent yellow jackets had already migrated to the Miami bench to deter fans from bombarding the players and coaches there. The large video monitor above the end zone also repeated the message.
“It was awesome,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said at a postgame press conference on Saturday. “It was the first time I heard that.”
The intensity of Bills fans highlighted the heightened stakes of the contest, as the division rivals battled for playoff seeding in the loaded AFC. The Bills won the game, 32-29, clinch a playoff berth and move closer to home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. It’s the fifth time in coach Sean McDermott’s six seasons with Buffalo that the team has reached the playoffs. The Bills were considered by sportsbooks and pundits to be Super Bowl favorites.
“It’s humbling,” McDermott said. “It really is. That’s how I feel. I’m honored to be a part of it in this great city that doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.
A 25-yard field goal by Buffalo’s Tyler Bass ended a back-and-forth affair between two of the league’s best offenses. The Bills ran for 86 yards in the final six minutes of the game to break a 29-29 tie. With 50 seconds left in the game, Miami defensive back Kader Kohou was called for a pass interference penalty against Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie, bringing the ball to the Dolphins 13-yard line. This put the Bills first on the court for an easy kick to win the game.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen completed 25 of 40 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, while Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa completed 17 of 30 passes for 234 yards and two scores. Allen also added 77 rushing yards on 10 carries, helping avenge the Bills’ 21-19 loss to the Dolphins in September.
The game was played in temperatures as low as 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Although flurries hit the area earlier in the day, a blizzard expected to affect the game at halftime stayed at bay until midway through the fourth quarter. At the final whistle, the field, once clear, was covered with a layer of fresh snow. (Fans had, uh, laid the groundwork a bit with their snowballs at the start of the game.)
All week, the Dolphins tried to minimize the potential impact of the icy conditions. Miami coach Mike McDaniel wore a t-shirt on Wednesday that read “I wish it was colder.” The team practiced on the indoor courts of their training facility in Miami Gardens, Florida, with the air conditioning turned on. Linebacker Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene participated in Saturday’s pre-game warm-ups shirtless, shirtless exposed to the cold.
McDaniel told reporters he didn’t believe the elements affected the Dolphins’ performance in the loss, their third straight.
“I know a lot of people would like to talk about the weather, but our team never did,” McDaniel said. “It was cool for you to talk about it, but it was more about football.”
The Bills led at halftime, 21-13, after Allen fired a four-yard touchdown pass to James Cook as time expired in the second quarter. The Bills allowed the Dolphins only one touchdown in the first half – an 11-yard run by Salvon Ahmed – despite Miami entering the red zone three times. Allen threw for three touchdowns before halftime as the Dolphins defense struggled to contain him and his receivers as he rushed. Allen was also not sacked in the first half.
Then the bills got sloppy. Buffalo failed to convert any of its four third attempts in the third quarter, sputtering after an explosive first half. But the Dolphins, who entered Saturday with the ninth-best offense in the league, scored two touchdowns in the period: Tagovailoa joined Jaylen Waddle for a 67-yard touchdown and with the fast Tyreek Hill for a 20-yard score. The Bills finished the quarter down, 26-21.
“You’re going to have ups and downs every game,” Bills tight end Dawson Knox said. “There are going to be these lulls. The best teams find ways to get through this. They find ways to win, whether it’s by 1 or 100.”
Miami extended its lead to fourth after Phillips fired Allen and the Dolphins recovered the ball. Five plays later, their lead widened to 29-21 with 11:56 remaining in the game after a 47-yard field goal. Allen was sacked twice in the second half as offensive line protection wore down and Miami’s pass rush began to enter the backfield more often.
But the Bills recovered. Allen threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Knox with about nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Allen then dove over the end zone for the two-point conversion, which officials deemed successful after lengthy consideration, tying the game at 29. The Dolphins spent the next three minutes trying to score, but ended up pitching, paving the way for Buffalo’s winning drive.
Since the offseason, after the Bills added linebacker Von Miller to an already strong roster, Super Bowl expectations have risen enormously for the Bills. They started 6-1 before losing back-to-back games to the Jets and Minnesota Vikings. Both of those contests were decided by three runs and ended in losses for the Bills, in part due to sloppy play and second-half turnovers.
The Bills have since won five consecutive games, becoming one of the most complete teams in the league. Going into Saturday, the offense ranked second in yards and the defense ranked second in points allowed even after Miller suffered a knee injury against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. But despite their lofty aspirations, Allen said he didn’t want to think too far ahead.
“You can’t win the Super Bowl unless you make the playoffs,” Allen said. “That’s the No. 1 down goal. Goal #2 is to clinch the division. That’s how we’re going to do it, one game at a time.
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