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Thursday Night Football Preview: Bienvenido a Miami

In a big AFC East matchup, should we expect any sort of scoring?

It's been something of a wild ride for the AFC East this year. The Patriots are well on their way to another division title, which would normally be business as usual. But instead, it comes as a bit of a surprise after a sluggish start in which Tom Brady's supporting cast struggled to keep up. The miserable New York Jets have set new standards for turrible-ness, supplanting second-year signal-caller Geno Smith with wily (read: washed-up) veteran Michael Vick. Yet, last week they delivered a veritable beatdown to the surging Pittsburgh Steelers, who were fresh off two huge wins over the Colts and Ravens.

Meanwhile, there's the middle of the pack: the Buffalo Bills and the Miami Dolphins. Both teams have had to endure over a decade of also-ran status, thanks to the Brady-Belichick dynasty. But with each team possessing a winning record at midseason, it's hard to envision a postseason that doesn't involve at least two teams from the AFC East. And if the Dolphins keep playing the way they have, they may even challenge the Patriots for the division.

To paraphrase Bill Simmons, Miami may be the sneaky-best team in the league. Their 5-4 record isn't exactly sterling, but according to numberFire's nERD metric, the Dolphins have been the fourth-most effective team in the league this year (behind only Denver, Indy, and Detroit - and ahead of New England by two places). Most of the credit is due to the Dolphins' top-ranked defense, which utterly silenced a high-powered San Diego offense two weeks ago; they're especially brutal against the pass, thanks to personnel like the excellent Brent Grimes.

Things have been more tempered for the Bills as of late. Like the Dolphins, they remain one of the elite defensive teams in the league, ranking fifth in overall Defensive Net Expected Points (or NEP) - sixth against the rush and third against the pass. But their offense has completely fallen apart. Replacing EJ Manuel with Kyle Orton was a difficult but prudent decision, as Manuel's accuracy issues were game-breaking (especially with a weapon like Sammy Watkins at receiver). But it remains to be seen whether Orton's ascension is the panacea Buffalo hoped it would be; the Bills are 3-2 in the five games Orton has started, as opposed to 2-2 for Manuel, but they've only topped 22 points once in that five-game stretch, against - who else - the lowly Jets.

It's mostly the injuries to formidable rushing tandem CJ Spiller and Fred Jackson, though, that have sunk the Bills' offense, as Buffalo currently ranks 29th in the NFL in Rushing NEP (and 26th in overall Offensive NEP).

So clearly this division standoff is going to revolve around the kinds of opportunities that these two teams can create on offense against their opponents' vaunted defenses. Will Orton be able to get anything going through the air against the flat-out best passing defense in the league? Will Ryan Tannehill be able to stay on his feet and, more importantly, on the field against Buffalo's swarming pass rush? Will Will Smith sing his hit single at halftime, accompanied by Jaden and Willow? Nobody knows. But let's look at some historical games that compare favorably to this one and see what we can see, shall we?

Slappers Only

In one of my fantasy leagues this year, we've instituted a new award: the Slappers Only Award. Inspired by the seminal Nintendo 64 game Goldeneye 007, it's awarded to the two teams who faced off in the worst display of fantasy football anyone saw that week - generally, the matchup where the two teams each scored something like 60 points and maybe started somebody who didn't even play.

Well, thanks to the high competency of the two defenses involved in this game, we might be looking at the real-football equivalent of Slappers Only. Not coincidentally, one of the strongest predictor games in our list this week is a 2003 meeting of the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots, good for a 90.27% match that favors the Dolphins. The score of that game? 12-0, Patriots.

You might remember that, in 2003, Tom Brady had already won one Super Bowl and was on his way to a second. But he was still in the "game manager" phase of his career, still several years removed from the record-setting, fantasy-dominating Brady of recent years. Against a solid Cowboys D, he had a quintessential game manager line: 15-of-34 for 212 yards, no touchdowns, and no interceptions. It's not unlike what we might see from Ryan Tannehill, who kept things close against the Lions last week while throwing for just 207 yards and one score on 38 attempts.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, were hampered first and foremost by their lack of a true rushing attack in that game, which is a real problem for the Bills, as well. Dallas's leading rusher was Troy Hambrick, who was something of a bridge between the Emmitt Smith era and the 2004 arrival of Julius Jones; Hambrick rushed for only 41 yards on 16 carries that day, which, combined with quarterback Quincy Carter's three interceptions, sank the team's chances of putting up points.

It's not incredibly likely we'll see Kyle Orton play as badly as Carter did that day, but it's also not completely out of the question, considering how good Miami's pass defense is. And Fred Jackson, Bryce Brown, and Anthony Dixon might be lucky to do what Hambrick did back in 2003, considering the way the Bills have run the football lately.

Uncanny X-Men

Another of our strongest predictor games (89.79%, again favoring the Dolphins) seems to have even more going for it: a contest between division rivals Seattle and San Francisco in October 2012, which the 49ers won, 13-6. The score certainly tells a similar story, which is that numberFire's metrics predict a low-scoring affair tonight in Miami. But the stats bear out something entirely different - a furious ground attack for both teams.

In that game, both quarterbacks floundered badly. Russell Wilson completed just 9 of his 23 passes for 122 yards and an interception, while Alex Smith completed 14-of-23 for 140 yards, a touchdown, and a pick. Marshawn Lynch and Frank Gore, meanwhile, toted the ball a combined 35 times for 234 yards, accounting for a crazy 41.5% of the total yards amassed in the game.

It's the type of game you rarely see in the NFL anymore, but can it happen tonight? Well, on Miami's side of the ball, it's not out of the question. Lamar Miller has quietly put together the strongest season of his mostly-disappointing pro career, including an extremely strong September performance against the Chiefs in which he put up over 100 yards on the ground for just the second time ever.

For the Bills, it's hard to say what kind of impact Fred Jackson will have against a middling Dolphins rush defense, if he plays. The ageless wonder has been a major factor in the Bills offense for several years, and if Buffalo goes into Miami with a run-first game plan to counteract the Dolphins' pass rush, it could mean lots of fruitful carries for Jackson. If for whatever reason he doesn't go, though, it's difficult to see Dixon and Brown making any sort of meaningful impact.

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