It’s been a long time since the Dolphins’ notorious “butt punt,” since Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was briefly knocked out of the game with what the team described as a back injury and then returned, since Buffalo offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey slammed his headphones against a wall in frustration in the coaches booth, and since 13 Buffalo Bills players fell victim to the smothering, oppressive humidity and heat of September in South Florida.
The Dolphins won that early-season matchup against the Bills, 21-19, to improve to 3-0 and emerge as a threat to Buffalo for the AFC East title.
But the Dolphins (8-5) enter Saturday night’s game at Buffalo (10-3) a far different team than when these teams first met on Sept. 25. They’re wiser, more worldly, more seasoned, more calloused.
Whether the Dolphins are better a team overall, and especially better than Buffalo, remains to be seen. It’s a “prove it” situation.
“Your team is a steadily evolving organism, so to speak,” coach Mike McDaniel said. “That was Game 3 of the season and I think a lot of people were, in that moment, trying to prove that we were worthy of some of the better teams in the league to compete against.
“I think we find ourselves in a situation [in which] any time you lose games in a row in an NFL regular season there’s something that you feel like you have to go out and prove, just in general.”
The Bills, who can secure a playoff berth with a victory over the Dolphins, are also different. As a small example, they’ve lost edge rusher Von Miller and added wide receiver/returnman Nyheim Hines. Overall, they’ve gone 8-2 since that Dolphins loss, including their current four-game winning streak, and solidified themselves as a Super Bowl contender.
The Dolphins, as McDaniel said, still have something to prove.
But the Dolphins should be even more ready for Saturday’s big game at Highmark Stadium than they were for September’s big game at Hard Rock Stadium.
Since that time the Dolphins have packed a season’s worth of drama and emotion into three months and a dozen games.
They went through an assembly line of quarterbacks due to injury, some controversial. First it was Tagovailoa (concussion), then Teddy Bridgewater (the wobbles), then Skylar Thompson (hand).
The quarterback rotation came amid a three-game losing streak and a hard crash back to Earth.
But the Dolphins bounced back with a joyous five-game winning streak, accompanied by chatter of contending for the top seed in the AFC.
And, now, most recently, there’s been back-to-back losses and talk of a tough road for a wildcard berth.
So, yeah, the Dolphins are different from when they met Buffalo in September, especially offensively.
“That was a game where it was just about our third game together,” offensive coordinator Frank Smith said, “and now we’ve basically gone through a quarter of fourth quarter of the season, so I think our experience and being a little more connected is something that would probably be the difference.”
The Dolphins are also different defensively. Look at Buffalo’s final drive, when the Dolphins held them on downs to preserve their victory, and you notice the Dolphins had defenders on the field such as safety Brandon Jones, edge rusher Emmanuel Ogbah, and defensive end Trey Flowers. They’re all sidelined with season-ending injuries.
“Those guys are a little bit different,” defensive coordinator Josh Boyer said of the defense he’ll field Saturday. “That’s just life in the NFL season as it goes. You’re always going to have to handle attrition, moving guys around. I think you learn a lot about your team as you go.”
And so it goes with Saturday’s game.
Win or lose, the Dolphins will learn something else about themselves.
Are they legit contenders for the AFC East title?
Are they legit contenders for a wildcard berth?
Are they legit at all?
And was it a fluke they beat Buffalo in September, a game in which Buffalo was missing its All Pro safeties, Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, among others?
The Dolphins’ gritty, hard-fought victory in that game established them as a team to watch in the AFC and the NFL. You could argue how the Dolphins perform Saturday is a glimpse into whether their September victory was legit or a fluke. Bills fans would argue for the latter.
McDaniel would argue this is a different team, and a different time.
“The bottom line is none of it matters because it’s about preparing each day for one game, that all of the games before and all of the games after are pretty much irrelevant,” McDaniel said.
“So on that day, who wants to strain the most, who wants to compete the most and then who does their job and relies on their teammates? That generally is the team that wins. So whether we won or lost that game, it wouldn’t really factor into this upcoming one, I don’t think.”