Coming into the 2022 season, the Buffalo Bills were easy favorites to win the AFC East and were even above the 31 other teams as favorites to win the Super Bowl. However as the season has gone on, that division has started to appear more competitive than anyone expected. As the Miami Dolphins keep chugging to victory after victory, it’s easy to wonder whether they are the real team to beat in the AFC East.
The way things currently stand, Miami and Buffalo are tied atop the division with matching 8-3 records. The Dolphins would hold the edge if the playoffs started today after winning the two teams’ first head-to-head matchup back in September. Their next game against each other is in a couple of weeks, this time in Buffalo, and will play a big part in figuring out the true identities of each team as well as who will come out on top.
Speaking of true identities, a big reason the Dolphins have been so successful this season as compared to last seems to be that they’ve found theirs. More specifically, new head coach Mike McDaniel has figured out how to maximize quarterback Tua Tagovailoa’s production output by rebuilding his confidence, tailoring the offense around his skill set, and correctly using the weapons in place around him.
Anyone who has watched the Dolphins over the last two seasons will be the first to tell you that the offense looks completely different—reinvigorated, even—this year. Adding an elite receiver like Tyreek Hill certainly helped, yes, but that alone can’t save an offense (just look at the Raiders, who added another elite receiver in Davante Adams).
No, the biggest difference has been McDaniel’s more nuanced offensive playbook that has given opposing defenses fits all year in a way that last year’s offense never did. There’s more play-action and RPOs—schemes in which Tagovailoa had always excelled, even last year—rather than normal dropbacks. The Dolphins are also at the top of the league in the percentage of offensive plays with pre-snap motion (74.1%!), which allows Tagovailoa to get a better read on opposing defenses.
That, along with the addition of Hill and the presence of speedy second-year receiver Jaylen Waddle, has allowed the quarterback to push the ball further downfield and with more efficiency. Tagovailoa is first in the NFL in yards per pass attempt (9.0) and passer rating (115.7) as well as second in the league in completion percentage (69.7%) and (fewest) interceptions with just three. His average depth of target on pass attempts leaped from seven yards last year to more than nine this year, and his passer rating beyond 10 yards downfield through 12 weeks is far above league average.
Miami has gone from a below-average team in EPA (expected points added) per dropback last year to second in the NFL through Week 12 this year, only behind the Kansas City Chiefs. When Tagovailoa is on the field, the Dolphins lead the NFL in EPA per play. In games that Tagovailoa has started and finished, they are 8-0, including five straight wins since he returned from injury in Week 7. The quarterback is playing like a legitimate MVP candidate—especially recently, with zero interceptions over the course of this active, five-game win streak—while leading Miami’s offense to the top of the NFL.
Meanwhile, the Bills, and particularly quarterback Josh Allen, have struggled a bit as of late. Two of their three losses this season have come in the last five games, and Allen has started to have some hiccups with seven interceptions to six touchdown passes and a completion rate below 60 percent over that span. The injury to his elbow is no doubt part of that, and one has to wonder how much that will affect Buffalo’s chances as the season progresses, particularly when these two teams play in a few weeks.
As Tagovailoa and the Dolphins continue to play well and stack up wins while the Bills face some midseason adversity, it’s hard not to think Miami is the real team to beat right now in the AFC East. They both have some serious tests ahead of them, but the Dolphins have looked almost unstoppable on offense when their quarterback is healthy. Though it may have been surprising before this season began with all of the remaining questions about Tagovailoa and McDaniel’s new offense, seeing Miami at the top of the AFC East (or even the entire AFC) at regular season’s end would not be a shock.