Sunday's Week 17 game against the Miami Dolphins was not a must-win for the Buffalo Bills. All that was on the line for Buffalo was the difference between the second seed versus the third seed in the playoffs. While having a higher seed is always nice, the Bills were already locked into a division title and a solid playoff spot. Their regular-season mission had been accomplished.
Miami, on the other hand, needed the win to secure a playoff spot. Technically, with some luck, the Dolphins could have still gotten in with a loss, but a win would have secured their spot in the postseason. The game was an absolute must-win for the Dolphins.
The Bills sure did not treat this game like a throwaway match. By the end of the first half, Buffalo held a 28-6 lead, thanks in part to a punt return score from wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie. Quarterback Josh Allen put on an absolute clinic, earning himself some R&R on the bench for the second half so as to ensure his safety for the playoff run. Allen finished with 18 completions on 25 attempts, 224 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception in the first half alone.
Despite what the 28-6 halftime lead suggests, the Bills did not do much of anything through the first quarter. Their first three drives generated a whole bunch of nothing. In fact, the first drive gave the impression that the Bills might actually be in for a long day. After converting a couple of first downs through efficient runs and short passes, Allen was sacked for 11 yards on a first-and-10, then immediately threw an interception on the next play after waiting around too long for his receivers to break open. Briefly, the Bills looked like the worst version of themselves, setting up an early Miami 3-0 lead.
The next two drives didn't get the Bills anywhere, either. They nearly reached midfield on both drives, but ultimately stalled out after a few incompletions thanks in part to pressure generated by Miami's front. Through those first few drives, though, the Dolphins defense seemed hellbent on spot-drop Cover-3, fire-zone Cover-3, and five-man pressure versions of Cover-2 on early downs, while mixing in more aggressive man coverage pressure packages on third down.
Allen and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll soaked that information up and went on a rampage over the next few drives. Daboll caught the Dolphins defense in the exact coverage he wanted a number of times, while Allen did well to execute and get the ball out of his hand in a timely manner. The offense looked as mercilessly efficient as it had been all year.
Below is a first-and-10 from Buffalo's fourth drive of the game, their first to end in a touchdown. As Daboll anticipated, Miami called a variation of spot-drop Cover-3 to open the series. This is a fire-zone version of Cover-3, meaning a fifth defender rushes the passer (the nickel corner, in this case), while three deep defenders and three underneath defenders handle coverage responsibilities. Daboll, in response, calls a Cover-3-beater, hitch-seam, to the strong side.
Since there is only one deep-middle defender, the two outside underneath defenders need to help carry any vertical releases up the seam to buy time for the deep-middle safety. In doing so, there is a window in which the hitch route on the outside is one-on-one versus a cornerback who wants to bail to a deep-third. Allen finds that window with ease and sticks one to Stefon Diggs at the bottom of the screen for a solid 8-yard gain.
On the very next drive, Daboll and Allen harped on the same idea to find another nice pickup from Diggs. The Dolphins even run the same safety rotation away from the tight end behind the blitzing nickel cornerback (who this time is coming from the offense's left). In this clip, the Bills are running more of a Levels concept, but the idea is the same. The outside underneath defender (Jerome Baker, 55) needs to flow with the vertical release of the tight end and help pass him off to the deep defender. Diggs is once again left alone against a cornerback who wants to bail, setting him up for an easy pitch-and-catch from Allen.
Daboll also turned Miami's more aggressive third-down calls against them, too. On Buffalo's first scoring drive of the day, the Bills offense was faced with a third-and-4 just inside the 10-yard line. Daboll caught the Dolphins in a man coverage pressure look and set up slot receiver Isaiah McKenzie to make a play.
To the trips (right) side of the formation, the Bills are running what looks like a red zone adaptation of an Ohio combination with their two outermost receivers. The No. 2 (middle receiver) runs a speed out at 5 to 7 yards, while the No. 1 (outside) gets vertical with an outside release. The outside release from No. 1 is done in order to force the outside corner to turn his back to the rest of the combination, which will not necessarily happen in zone coverages, and help generate space. All the slot receiver needs to do now is get a step of separation on the goal line and it's an easy score. McKenzie, who scored two more touchdowns in this game, did just that and provided Allen with an easy target.
Allen himself showed a pretty good understanding of how to battle Miami's coverages, too. Both inside and outside the pocket, Allen proved he had answers for what the Dolphins were trying to throw at him, especially on early downs.
With Miami starting off in a single-high shell and their nickel cornerback at the top of the screen immediately bailing off the line of scrimmage into the flat, Allen can make a strong guess that the Dolphins are once again in spot-drop Cover-3. As Allen brings his eyes back to the middle of the field, he sees both Miami linebackers in hook zones, which helps Allen make his next move outside the pocket. Allen bails to his left and gears his shoulders as if he's going to throw left, perhaps just down to the checkdown. The hook defender (Kyle Van Noy, 53) flies down as a response to try to corral either Allen as a runner or the potential checkdown, leaving a window behind him for the deep crosser to settle back into. That's just a good job from Allen to understand how windows open up against certain coverages based on where he's moving outside the pocket.
This time, with just over a minute left in the half, the Dolphins are in Cover-2 with their cornerbacks playing really soft. Seeing as the Dolphins start in a two-high shell, the moment Allen sees the cornerback on his first read (right) slide to outside leverage and looks to settle down, he can assume Miami is in Cover-2, or perhaps Cover-6 with more of a quarters look on the other side. As soon as Allen bails the pocket to his left, he takes inventory of the cornerback to be sure the defense is in Cover-2. Allen sees the cornerback sitting low, as expected, and lets it rip to John Brown on a corner route about 30 yards down the field.
Again, that is a heads-up play from Allen to understand what is left on his checklist before making a throw despite being moved out of the pocket. It also helps he has the arm strength to rip a 25-plus-yard corner route with ease, which is not something most quarterbacks can say.
Plays like the previous two are good examples of how far Allen has come as a quarterback. Previously, both at Wyoming and early in his NFL career, many of Allen's plays outside the pocket lacked any degree of process. He looked more like a chicken with his head cut off than a quarterback deliberately moving around to make a play. Now, Allen's scrambling feels like it has real structure and he understands what to look for once he gets moving. That has been a terrifying predicament for defenses all year long considering Allen has the athleticism and arm talent to make every throw on the field available to him at all times.
It's dumbfounding how ruthless Buffalo's passing attack has become. The Bills have discovered a beautiful blend of making the base of their offense as smooth to execute as possible while enabling Allen to be the playmaker he is. All the flash about Allen's game that dazzled for years finally has some real substance to it, thanks to both Allen's personal development as well as Daboll's play-calling brilliance.