Dolphins enter first playoff game in 6 years with history vs. Bills – and playing backup QBs

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Josh Allen’s comments came in passing but they proved prescient.

“That’s a really good football team,” the Buffalo quarterback said after the Week 15 meeting between the Dolphins and Bills. “Who knows if we’ll see them again? I’m pretty positive we will.”

Allen wasn’t far removed from giving the Dolphins a 32-29 loss, one that, while marking Miami’s third consecutive defeat in what would be a winless December, was a reminder that the team could blow-for-blow with an elite squad in the NFL.

Almost a month to the date of that prime-time matchup, the seventh-seeded Dolphins will face the No. 2 seed Bills at Highmark Stadium in Orchard Park, New York, in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs on Sunday.

“It’s about time. It’s about time,” inside linebacker Jerome Baker said of the franchise’s first playoff game since the 2016 season. “But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you don’t go up there and get the win, so I’m going to do everything I can to get the win, get the guys going and we’re going to come out ready to go and we’re going to get it done.”

The Dolphins, though, will head back to Orchard Park as a diminished version of the team that almost swept the Bills. Starting quarterback Tua Tagovailoa has been ruled out for his third consecutive game, as he remains in the league’s concussion protocol. Tagovailoa has not been cleared to practice after being diagnosed with his second concussion on Dec. 26.

His absence is the chief concern for a roster that will have more than two-thirds of its players making their postseason debuts, including key contributors such as Baker, wide receiver Jaylen Waddle and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins. Dolphins coach Mike McDaniel, who went on multiple playoff runs as an assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, downplayed the team’s perceived inexperience.

“I think the team gained a bunch of valuable experience with this end-of-the-season stretch,” he said. “A lot of the team hadn’t been exposed to significant prime-time games so they had not only a lot of exposure, but they had failed expectations, which is tough. And then the biggest thing is win or go home, that you feel in the playoffs. And that’s definitely what they felt [against the New York Jets in Week 18].”

As much as Dolphins faithful have longed to return to the postseason, a victory has been even more elusive. Miami hasn’t won a playoff game since the 2000 season, the second-longest active drought in the NFL. And it’s no coincidence that that stretch for all but one season has overlapped with the retirement of Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino in 2000.

The franchise checked one box when it pulled out an 11-6 victory over the Jets in the regular-season finale, ending a five-game losing streak and making the playoffs in McDaniel’s first season as head coach. But if the Dolphins want to end their two-decades-long streak without a playoff win, they will have to do it without the breakout player who has at times looked like the answer to Miami’s equally-as-long quarterback quandary.

Tagovailoa’s latest absence and the long-term concerns about his injury history not only loom over the Dolphins’ win-or-go-home game but an offseason that, whenever it arrives, will consist of hard discussions about his future within the franchise.

For now, though, the Dolphins can only place their attention on a division rivalry that spans several decades and includes multiple bouts in the playoffs. Sunday’s matchup will be the fifth all-time postseason game between the franchises, with Miami losing three of four.

Unfortunately for the Dolphins, Tagovailoa’s injury will deprive the game of the Marino-Kelly-like quarterback matchup that defined the rivalry for much of the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Instead, rookie Skylar Thompson, Miami’s seventh-round pick, will make his third career start. Teddy Bridgewater, who has been recovering from a dislocated pinkie on his right (throwing) hand, will again back up Thompson. Coincidentally, the last time the Dolphins played in the postseason, they were also without their starting quarterback. A late-season injury to Ryan Tannehill kept him out of a wild-card game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Matt Moore got the start in a 30-12 defeat.

Sunday’s game, like the 2016 meeting, placed the Dolphins as double-digit underdogs in a matchup viewed by many as an insurmountable task.

“I’m more concerned about preparing the team,” McDaniel said when asked about the perception of a lopsided matchup. “That doesn’t make me, personally, blink. This just in — no one expected me personally to do anything that I’ve ever done, really. I think a journey of an NFL player is very similar with the amount of competition there is and how the parity is what it is. I think most guys on NFL teams have been told they couldn’t.

“It’s a really good football team that we’re playing, so we probably agree with people in that regard. Arguably the best in the league, it’s right up there. If we think we’re pretty good as well or have a higher opinion than everybody else, that’s not everybody else’s fault. I don’t know. I’m not surprised nor does it affect me that much at all. It’s more about playing the football game to the best of our ability and being happy with our investment. If you’re happy with your investment, you can live with the outcome, regardless of what it is.”