Bills vs. Dolphins: Special Teams Could Be Key, and Why That Benefits 'Phins

Alan HubbardContributor IIIDecember 22, 2012

Nov 15, 2012; Orchard Park, NY, USA; Miami Dolphins running back Marcus Thigpen (34) returns a kickoff for a touchdown during the first quarter of a game against the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium. Buffalo won the game 19-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

When the Miami Dolphins last met the Buffalo Bills, it was a nationally televised Thursday night game. 

The nation may have been let down with the product it was presented with. It was a game rife with mistakes, miscues and all-around sloppy football. 

The most exciting part of that Thursday night game was the display of special teams put on by both Miami and Buffalo. 

Buffalo started the display, as Leodis McKelvin returned the game's first punt 79 yards for a touchdown. After a later Rian Lindell field goal, Miami's Marcus Thigpen returned a kickoff 96 yards for a touchdown, cementing his place in Miami Dolphins history. 

Buffalo would win the game, 19-14. All of the Bills' points came from special teams. Seven of Miami's 14 points were from special teams. 

There's no question special teams were a deciding factor in that game. And, upon further examination, they could be the deciding factor this week as well.

For the Miami Dolphins, that's a good thing. 

First off, Marcus Thigpen has emerged as a top return threat in the NFL. It's because of Thigpen that Miami has the highest average yards per kickoff return (28.3) and is tied for seventh in average yards per punt return (10.9). 

Thigpen is a dynamic threat. He can hit the home run on punts and kickoffs, as he's proven this season. He has quickly become the kind of talent that opposing teams would be wise to kick away from. And if the Bills remember anything from that Thursday night game, they will kick away from Thigpen. 

On the flip side, Buffalo's return specialist, Leodis McKelvin, will be out for tomorrow's game. He burned Miami in Week 11, but he'll be a non-factor on Sunday. Because of that, Miami holds the advantage in the return game. 

Secondly, let's examine both teams' kickers. Buffalo's Rian Lindell has only made 20 field goals this season (25th in the league), but he's only attempted 21. Chalk up his paltry attempt number to Buffalo's equally paltry offense if you must, but don't overlook Lindell's 95 percent success rate.

Lindell rarely misses, and his four field goals gave Buffalo the edge in Week 11. 

Miami's usual kicker, Dan Carpenter, missed his only field-goal attempt in that game. It's hard to say how the game would have gone had he made the kick, but it's still points that Miami left on the field. 

Carpenter won't be in this game, though. He was placed on injured reserve this week, ending what has been a rough season for the kicker. The Dolphins signed Nate Kaeding to be his replacement for the rest of the way. 

The former San Diego Charger has established himself as one of the league's more reliable kickers in his nine seasons. He only played with San Diego for three games this year, but he made all seven attempts, including a five-field goal outing in Week 1. 

Kaeding has a career field-goal percentage of 87, a respectable number. Considering Carpenter's struggles this season, Kaeding could provide a boost to Miami's kicking game Sunday. 

Miami may have to rely heavily on its special teams due to injuries. Davone Bess is listed as out and Brian Hartline is currently questionable. If Hartline can't play, Miami will be without its top two receivers.

They would instead have to roll with Marlon Moore, Armon Binns and Rishard Matthews. With a group of mostly untested receivers, the Dolphins will need a huge boost from their special teams. 

Buffalo is coming off an embarrassing loss and may find extra motivation knowing it can both sweep the Dolphins and eliminate their already dim playoff hopes. But if tomorrow's game comes down to special teams, the Dolphins should have the edge.