Week 11 gives us an AFC East matchup between two of the teams who did the most to improve themselves in the offseason. While many have focused on the surprising Dolphins this season, in the wide-open AFC, both of these teams have a chance to set the tone for a potential playoff run on Thursday Night Football.
The Dolphins (4-5) are second place in the AFC East and have shocked a lot of people with their play in 2012. However, the season isn't over quite yet, and a 1-2 record after their bye week leaves big huge gaping holes in their confidence—similar to the gigantic holes that Chris Johnson ran through en route to the Tennessee Titans' 37-3 Week 10 stomping.
If the Dolphins want to shut their critics up once and for all, they need to take care of business this week against an overmatched and listless Bills team.
The Bills (3-6) were supposed to be the team that ascended in the AFC East this year, but sit tied for last in the division and boast one of the league's worst defenses after investing a Brinks truck worth of cash into Mario Williams. Their offense hasn't fared much better, as Ryan Fitzpatrick's tremendous beard-growing ability doesn't translate into completing very many passes.
The Bills look out of the hunt, but a win against the Dolphins would set them up nicely for a pretty easy schedule down the stretch. As bad as they've been, they're still in the hunt, and Thursday night will prove how they respond with their backs against the wall.
So, which of these AFC East foes wins in Week 11?
Key Storyline No. 1: Can Either of These Teams Make a Run at the Playoffs?
If the season ended today, the Dolphins would be two spots out of the field, and the Bills are only a game back from them. The AFC has been down this year and a slightly-above-.500 team—like each of these teams could conceivably be at the end of the season—will benefit.
Interestingly enough, the Dolphins have a harder road to the playoffs than the Bills. Yes, they're a game ahead right now, but games against the Patriots (twice), 49ers and Seahawks aren't going to make the second half of the year into a cakewalk.
The Bills have to play the Seahawks as well, but that represents their hardest matchup for the rest of the year. While Fitzpatrick and company have historically wilted when the wind whips up and exacerbates Fitzpatrick's weak arm, it's not beyond the realm of possibility that the Bills could make a run behind Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller.
Still, whoever loses this game is going to be considered firmly out of the race, so any potential run needs to start on Thursday night.
Key Storyline No. 2: Is it Too Soon to Judge Either of These Teams?
Both the Bills and the Dolphins had what many considered to be tremendous offseasons. Over the first half of the year, however, it seemed as if Miami got a ridiculously better return on their investments. Buddy Nix is being served up on a silver platter, and Jeff Ireland is enjoying a brand-new level of job security as his picks pan out and he starts to look more-and-more like a genius.
Hold the phone, ladies and gentlemen, let's let this one play out a little bit. Sure, everything we know now supports that notion above—we should just write the Bills off and book tickets for Tannehill's 2040 Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Maybe, but maybe not.
What if the Bills' moving parts on defense suddenly start to gel together a little bit? Williams has been considered a bust, but a couple of multi-sack games late in the season could certainly change that narrative. A little improvement in the Bills' defense over the second half of the season could equal a lot of wins.
What if Tannehill wilts as more teams get more tape on him? What if his fast start to the season was a symptom of having an easy transition to the NFL (similar system, same coaching) than an actual predictor of future successes?
Note: I'm not saying either of those things are true or are going to be true, but both of these teams have plenty of chances to turn themselves around. How we talk about them for the rest of the year could depend a lot on how they perform on Thursday night.
Keys for the Miami Dolphins
On offense, the Dolphins need to run, run and run some more. Reggie Bush dominated the Bills for over 200 yards last season. Even though he's been down as of late, the Bills rushing defense hasn't been any better. If Bush can cross the century mark, the Dolphins should win this one pretty easily.
Who Wins on Thursday Night?
To avoid staying one-dimensional, the Dolphins need to keep Tannehill out of harm's way. As much as we've talked about Williams' overpriced contract, the Bills are middle of the road with 20 sacks and would love to get a couple more against the rookie at home on Thursday night. Davone Bess should probably get a few extra looks in short-to-intermediate routes.
Defensively, the Dolphins' have been solid against the run all season and need to continue that trend on Thursday night. If they force Fitzpatrick to beat them, he wont. Paul Soliai matches up with Eric Wood in the trenches and whoever wins that battle more often could end up going home the victor.
Keys for the Buffalo Bills
Offensively, the Bills have pretty much the same goal as the Dolphins—run as much as humanly possible without allowing the Dolphins to stack nine in the box. Chan Gailey needs to take the ball out of Fitzpatrick's hands and put it firmly in Spiller's.
The more Spiller can be used in the pass game, the better. If the Dolphins are going to try to rattle Fitzpatrick with overload blitzing, Spiller should be open, wide open, in the flats. Scott Chandler should be open in the other.
On defense, the Bills (again) have a similar road to victory as the Dolphins, but a much harder one. While the Dolphins get a strength-on-strength matchup with their run defense against the Bills rushing attack, the Bills have to put forward a historically bad rushing defense against a back who destroyed them last time around.
The Bills can win if Tannehill has to be at his best on a short week, on the road. If they just let Bush run wild on them again, they might as well start draft prep for 2013.
Bold Prediction: Ryan Tannehill Throws Multiple Interceptions in a Win
This has not happened yet in Tannehill's professional career. For the most part, this team has performed as well as he has and vice versa. However, against Buffalo, expect Mike Sherman to realize quickly where his bread is buttered and take the ball out of the hands of his star pupil.
Tannehill will perform poorly (at least to the standards he's set), but the Dolphins will get the road win.
Player of the Game Prediction: Reggie Bush
Bush, meanwhile, will remind people that he's got some serious skill between the tackles as the Bills will fail to stop him from gashing them over and over again. Expect him to cross the century mark sometime in the third quarter and pick up his second multiple rushing touchdown game of the year.
Final Score Prediction: Dolphins 20, Bills 13
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff alongside other great writers at "The Go Route."