Armando Salguero

Biggest game in years for Dolphins against a Bills team that has gotten better since last meeting

Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi runs through the Buffalo Bills defense in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Oct. 23, 2016.
Miami Dolphins Jay Ajayi runs through the Buffalo Bills defense in the first quarter at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida, Oct. 23, 2016.

Let’s be real: The Miami Dolphins will play their biggest game in years on Saturday when they visit the Buffalo Bills.

If history is your thing, then you have to say it was 2013 since the Dolphins played a game this big this late in the NFL season. That year the Dolphins visited Buffalo needing to win to keep playoff hopes alive. They lost. The next week they needed to beat the New York Jets to keep playoff hopes alive. They lost.

They got beat by Thad Lewis -- for the second time that season.

And by Geno Smith.

The Dolphins had everything to play for then. Those long-ago Bills and Jets had very much less to play for. And yet, those Dolphins failed.

That does not matter now. Those Dolphins are gone. Those Bills are gone.

Amazingly ... these Dolphins might not be quite as good individually.

But they’re better as a team.

That is why despite injuries, despite doubts, despite an early season 1-4 record, these Dolphins are on the precipice of a playoff berth.

Think of it: If the Dolphins win on Saturday, the Denver Broncos would have to win both their final games and hope the Dolphins lose their finale to sneak into the playoffs ahead of Miami. And the Broncos play 10-4 Kansas City and then 11-3 Oakland the final two weeks.

So Saturday could be something of a knockdown if not knockout blow for Denver if the Dolphins win.

Yes, big game.

The mood around the Dolphins this week is supposed to be just like last week’s. And the week before and the week before that. Coach Adam Gase and his staff will try to set that mood Tuesday morning when players report for work.

But Monday the tone around the building was, well, anticipatory. Let’s just say folks are aware the stakes this Saturday. It wasn’t a just-like-any-other-game kind of vibe.

Everyone knows the stakes and everyone knows this will be an uphill climb. Why?

Because the Bills are good. Very good.

No one in Miami is fooled by that team’s 7-7 record. No one is fooled by the 28-25 victory Miami got over Buffalo in October.

That team the Dolphins beat has gotten better.

That team didn’t have receivers Sammy Watkins or Robert Woods or defensive lineman Marcel Dareus or linebacker Shaq Lawson. None of those players saw action against the Dolphins the first game.

And while running back LeSean McCoy did play that game, he came into the game with a hamstring injury and re-aggravated the injury before the first half was over. McCoy averages anywhere from 18-20 carries a game. He had eight carries for 11 yards against the Dolphins that day.

The McCoy who will play Miami on Saturday is healthy, barring something unforeseen in the next few days. He’s had three 100-plus-yard performances in the last four games.

Yes, these Bills are better than they were.

The Dolphins?

They won’t have starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He is out again this weekend. (It would be no surprise if he doesn’t play again until the 2017 season).

Matt Moore is Miami’s starter now and, no, that isn’t a disaster for the Dolphins. The last time the Dolphins won in Buffalo was 2011. Moore was Miami’s quarterback in that game. Indeed, Moore helped the Dolphins sweep the Bills in ‘11.

So this isn’t new for him.

But all that being said, he’s not the Dolphins first-string quarterback.

The Dolphins also don’t have their starting center. Mike Pouncey played in that first game against Buffalo this year. And so did Pro Bowl safety Reshad Jones. Both are on injured reserve now.

The Pouncey injury continues to sting. With Pouncey in the lineup, Jay Ajayi shredded the Bills for 214 on 28 carries. Without Pouncey, Ajayi has been very much less effective.

(This has not been reported: The Dolphins put Pouncey on IR last week despite the fact he wanted to return to action. He wanted to be part of this playoff run. The problem with that is if he had reinjured his hip for what would have been the third time this season, he could have ended his career. Yes, that serious. The Dolphins believe with further rest and rehabilitation, Pouncey can come back next season and not be at risk of suffering a career-ending hip injury. So the decision was made, against Pouncey’s will, to put the center on injured reserve and take the long view of the player’s career.)

So where was I before news got in the way of this column?

Ah yes, what I’m telling you is the Dolphins on Saturday will be without Tannehill, Jones, and Pouncey -- all of whom played the first game against Buffalo. And the Bills will have Watkins, Woods, Lawson, and Dareus -- none of whom played the first game against Miami.

Yes, that is cause for concern.

With all that said, these Dolphins have a belief in themselves that those late October Dolphins lacked.

This team has grown the past two months. They know each other better now. The coaches know the players better. The players know the schemes better.

This team has been tested. It has won on defense against San Diego. It has won on special teams in the first game against the New York Jets. It won with timely offense against late in the game against Los Angeles. Last week, this team won on the road with a backup quarterback.

These Dolphins have won eight of nine games. So they feel good about themselves. They think they’re good enough to win.

In a few days we’ll see if they’re good enough to win the biggest game this franchise has played in years.

Armando Salguero on Twitter: @ArmandoSalguero

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