Sean McDermott could’ve gone through chapter and verse of what he saw from the Dolphins’ intergalactic offense over the tape of the 2023 season’s first three weeks. The Bills coach could explain how Tyreek Hill’s speed changes the math for a defense, how creative the Miami run game is, or how quick the ball was getting out of Tua Tagovailoa’s hand.
But his preparation, and the Bills’ preparation, for the biggest Miami-Buffalo game in a generation was so much simpler than that.
"Yeah,” he says, pausing and laughing in a quiet moment from his office at Highmark Stadium on Sunday afternoon, “I went to church every day after I left work. You can print that. I went to church every day after I left work and twice this morning.”
Consider his, and the Bills’, prayers answered. And know that this wasn’t about McDermott and his staff waving some magic game-planning wand or delivering some speech on who’s ruled the AFC East over the past three years.
How the Bills’ 48–20 win came to be on a Chamber of Commerce Sunday in Western New York was much simpler than that. Buffalo has a lot of really good players, a few elite ones, and a great quarterback who played really well—things you might have forgotten three weeks after all of them had one bad night in New Jersey.
What came to be against Mike McDaniel’s Dolphins in Orchard Park—a rout that stunned a lot of folks swept away in September storylines—has been in plain sight for seven years. So when things got hard for the Bills, a table didn’t need to be flipped over in the locker room. A players-only meeting didn’t need to be held, nor did a drastic reimagining of the Bills need to take place.
Buffalo just needed to play better than it did against the Jets. And in doing so, over the past three weeks, and emphatically Sunday, they blew the doors off post–Week 1 storylines that ignored history and instead latched on to a single Monday night.
“No, it is that boring,” center Mitch Morse told me from the Bills’ locker room. “We find the more boring it is, the better. And finding the fun and executing and getting better, it’s going to correlate to Sundays. We’re going to have a test here again. I mean, it’s been kind of smooth sailing for the past few weeks. But we understand this is the NFL.”
Meaning the momentum the Bills have built, Morse continued, won’t just keep steaming ahead, uninterrupted through the fall and into the winter. But what Buffalo showed in gathering its stride and exploding against the Dolphins is that the team still can run with anyone—and be the kind of team the 2022 Bills were built up, by folks on the outside, to be.
Even better, as the first month of the season has shown, this battle-tested group is more equipped than it’s ever been to deal with the times when it doesn’t look that way, either.
One more game to go in Week 4, and we have got plenty to get to in The MMQB this week. We’ve got you covered on …
• A historic day for Khalil Mack.
• The Broncos, Vikings, Rams and a whole lot more in the Takeaways.
But we’re starting with the team a lot of people dismissed, foolishly, three weeks ago.
If you plug what the Bills did on Sunday against the Dolphins together with their wins over the Raiders and Commanders in Weeks 2 and 3, the results look, well, just as cartoonish as those the Miami offense had produced coming into Week 4.
Check it out …
• Aggregate score: Bills 123, opponents 33
• Total yards: Bills 1,250, opponents 863
• Takeaways: Bills 10, opponents 1
And all three games were essentially controlled throughout by McDermott’s crew—the Bills held a double-digit halftime lead in each game and, in all three of them, the gap only grew as the second half wore on.
All of which is why, when it came time for the coach to say his prayers in studying Tua Tagovailoa, Tyreek Hill and all the ingenuity of McDaniel’s version of the Shanahan offense, the coach knew he had plenty to lean on. Namely, it was seven years of getting results a certain way, backed by what had happened over the two weeks after the loss to the Jets.
Which in turn allowed for the shock and awe of watching the Dolphins’ fast start of film to wear off pretty quickly last week.
“Look, when you watch the film, these guys, they’re professional athletes and it means something to them,” McDermott says. “They turn the film on. They see the score on the way home from the last game, and it raises your eyebrows, whether you’re an offensive player or a defensive player or special teams. It’s like, Whoa, how did that happen? But these guys, they do a great job resetting every week. They put in a ton of time.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a team prepare like these guys have—to this point, at least. … Our captains do a great job leading by example and holding guys to the standard. It’s a weekly deal, but I was really impressed by the way they prepared.”
And that meant preparing like they had for the Raiders and Commanders, with something to prove, sure, but moreso the “boring” consistency that Morse referenced, and that has existed in McDermott’s program since 2017.
“The sentiment that was shared, starting from the top on Wednesday, was to understand how we’ve approached the past two weeks prior to this one,” Morse says. “We love the results, but it started by compounding the moments and the days, and understanding that the game was not won on Wednesday. You have to accumulate these moments. And the thing this week was to make sure that we didn’t go outside of ourselves or do something that’s uncharacteristic or uncanny and I think it was actually the exact opposite.
“We were able to focus on just taking care of that moment, one moment at a time, and compound those and see what happens.”
Those moments would translate into body blows Sunday.
The first five possessions of the game made it look, at least on the surface, like a shootout to end all shootouts. The Bills went 75 yards in eight plays. The Dolphins answered by going 77 yards in seven plays. Buffalo came back with a 10-play, 80-yard drive. Miami responded with a seven-play, 70-yard drive, only to have the Bills go 79 yards in just five plays.
So that was five touchdowns in five possessions to open the game. And the Bills knew, from there, it’d come down to who, with a dull consistency that’d work like Novocain, could keep landing punches as the fight wore on.
Morse will cop to this: As he sat next to fellow captain Stefon Diggs at the Bills’ postgame press conference, he hadn’t a clue of what sort of afternoon his star teammate just had.
“I just try to take everything as it comes. And then I watch the highlights and realize half of the stuff that happened after the game,” Morse says with a laugh. “So I was on the podium with Stef and he was talking. Someone asked about three touchdowns. And I had no idea he had three touchdowns today.”
And maybe that best illustrates how, when it mattered most on Sunday, the Bills could put their heads down, lean on their battle-tested array of stars, and know things would turn O.K. the next chance they had to pop their heads up for air.
When Morse finally did, he was able to figure out that his team’s biggest stars had indeed shined brightest in all the big spots against Miami.
With Diggs—who was at the center of much drama over the summer—the biggest flashes came when Buffalo needed to find a way to separate from the Dolphins as the teams traded those long touchdown drives.
First, there was the way he found a dead spot in the Miami defense as Josh Allen scrambled to buy time on a second-and-goal in the second quarter, got vision on his quarterback, collected the ball, and shuffled into the end zone to give Buffalo a 21–14 lead. Then, there was how he got open on a comeback rout later, and wrestled past Kader Kohou and Brandon Jones, and into the open field for a 55-yard touchdown to make it 28–14.
And on the giving end of those plays was a quarterback—Allen—who’s made all the aforementioned storylines and post–Week 1 reactions look profoundly stupid.
Against the Raiders, Commanders and Dolphins, the 27-year-old has gone 72-of-94 for 812 yards, eight touchdowns, a single pick (that interception was essentially a punt—a shot play on a third-and-20 in Washington) and a 125.9 rating. Against Miami alone, he had a perfect passer rating. Which is to say, he’s answered people acting as if it was 2019 again in the aftermath of his bad night in Jersey by being, simply, the best quarterback in the NFL since.
And even better by raising his level when his team needed him most.
“Elite players play elite in these games,” McDermott says. “It was a great team win in one sense, but within that is baked in all-star performances from some star players—just Stef and Josh to name two. That’s what you need. That’s why I don’t play. Because I can’t do that. And the crowd was as loud as I’ve ever heard it. Unreal.”
It only got better, and louder, as the afternoon wore on, and the Bills closed Miami out.
Diggs’s third touchdown of the day came on a timing throw where the star receiver cooked a flailing Kohou and had the ball waiting for him near the pylon, delivered right on the receiver’s hip. That made it 41–20. A possession later, Allen easily took one in himself, following up a 34-yard dime to Gabe Davis with the 11-yard touchdown run to make it 48–20 one play into the fourth quarter.
And make a pretty emphatic point, too.
From a football standpoint, Morse will tell you now, the Jets game did serve a purpose for the Bills. It would lead to—borrowing his word again—the boring progress needed.
“It was a come-to-Jesus moment for all parties involved on this team,” he says. “We understood there were certain things that we wanted to kind of carry over from that game. I think we fought. We just didn’t execute. And you can have all the effort you want, but if you don’t execute and you get outside of yourselves, you’re kind of S-O-L, man. So I thought we just doubled down on what we do.”
They also, in a way, doubled down on who they are now.
On the day Damar Hamlin returned to the game field—adding even more emotion to what McDermott would agree was a really cool afternoon at the stadium—so much of what these Bills had gone through over the past year and a half was coming together.
There was the Tops Friendly Markets supermarket shooting that rocked their region in May of 2022, an incident Bills’ players helped with in the aftermath. There were the two snowstorms that displaced the team in midseason and were so difficult on Western New York. There was the Hamlin game in January, plus more conventional football adversity with injuries to Allen and Von Miller.
By the end of last year, the Bills were understandably emotionally spent. But there was an upshot to going through what they have as a group.
“In this league, you try to speak on family as much as possible, but you do understand that it’s a transactional league,” Morse says. “As much as an NFL football team can be a family, this one is. And I think it is absolutely formed by trials and tribulations. In this league, and in life, the highs can be incredibly high, and the lows can be absolutely devastating. Both bring a team together. And, unfortunately, last year, we faced a few tragedies.
“Today we were able to celebrate Damar [Hamlin] on the field, a guy who was itching to be out there and has just been a consummate professional, a guy who could have … It could …”
Morse then took a second.
“It was really cool,” he says. “That was really cool to see. It’s about as easy as I can say it, it was cool, as it should be.”
McDermott, similarly choked up when Hamlin’s return was raised, adding, “Nine months. I remember going and walking into his hospital room. I couldn’t stay in there. I had to walk back out just because it was … yeah. Now he’s out here playing football at the NFL level. It’s amazing.”
It’s reflective, too, of a team that could have been knocked off center by a lot over the past few months, be it some of the Diggs drama, or how the opener went, or the coaching staff turnover the past couple of offseasons.
Instead, the Bills are in October now, right where they were last October, shaping up as one of the top contenders for the Lombardi Trophy. And it’s because of who they are, where they’ve been and what they’ve built over the past seven years that was steeled, not shaken, by a bad start to another season with outsized expectations set.
“They’re maturing,” McDermott says. “When you go through shared life experiences, whether it’s individually or collectively as a group, it hardens you. It matures you in more ways than just on the field. Those can work to better people individually and collectively as a group. I don’t want to make too much of it. I think it’s the journey of life that some of our young players have experienced. It’s just a blessing.”
McDermott then would say he views his team as one, too.
“It’s just a blessing from God that these guys are who they are.”
On Sunday, we all saw, in living color, a lot of reasons for him to feel that way. And why he felt like, in the end, all those prayers last week would be answered.