By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (AP) — With Damar Hamlin recovering at home, Buffalo Bills coach Sean McDermott smiled when asked if he thought the tide of bad news might finally be turning for his team.
And he jumped on an opportunity to move forward to Sunday, when the AFC East champion Bills (13-3) host their division rival Miami Dolphins (9-8) in a wild-card playoff game.
“I appreciate where you’re going with that, but this is not a soap opera,” McDermott responded. “We’ve got one game to get ready for, and that’s really what we’re focused on.”
In the wake of an emotionally draining stretch during which the Bills were inspired by the outpouring of support from around the NFL, and uplifted further by Hamlin’s remarkable recovery since he had to be resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati, McDermott’s message was clear.
Given the adversity the Bills have overcome — from two snowstorms, injuries and four four-quarter deficits — already this season, this is no time for a letdown or occasion to overlook an opponent that may well be down to its third-string quarterback in rookie Skylar Thompson.
The Bills are heavily favored — by 13 1/2 points on FanDuel Sportsbook — with Dolphins QB Tua Tagovailoa already ruled out due to the aftereffects of a concussion sustained three weeks ago, and backup Teddy Bridgewater nursing a broken pinky finger.
The Bills also have momentum on their side in closing the season on a 7-0 run, which included a 32-29 win over Miami four weeks ago. And Buffalo is a more playoff-tested team in making its fourth consecutive postseason appearance.
The Dolphins, by comparison, stumbled down the stretch in losing five straight before clinching their first playoff berth since 2016 with an 11-6 win over the New York Jets last weekend — and only after New England was eliminated following a 35-23 loss at Buffalo.
First-year coach Mike McDaniel remains upbeat while understanding the challenge ahead.
“I know we have a dedicated, hungry football team that’s excited to play a game they earned to play in,” McDaniel said.
Rather than view the Dolphins’ late-season skid as a negative, the coach attempted to turn it into a positive by informing his players they’re one of five NFL teams to lose five straight and still qualify for the playoffs.
“You prefer to not lose five in a row, but I think it also more precisely speaks to the level of determination, the lack of splintering,” McDaniel said.
The Bills know plenty about perseverance, while also appreciating what they’ve overcome doesn’t provide them a pass into the next round.
“We understand the mortality of this team, and granted that might be the wrong choice of words in this given moment,” center Mitch Morse said. “But we understand that anyone can beat anyone on any given day. We do not feel like we’re owed anything.”
The teams split the season series. The Bills melted down in the South Florida heat in blowing a fourth-quarter lead in a 21-19 loss in September. Four weeks ago, the Dolphins froze in the fourth quarter as snow began falling in blowing an eight-point lead in a 31-28 loss.
The forecast for Sunday calls for sun and a high of 32.
McDaniel’s attempt at reverse psychology failed before Miami’s most recent trip to Buffalo. The coach turned up the air-conditioning in the Dolphins indoor facility and wore a shirt with the words, “I wish it were colder” printed on it.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen got in the last laugh following the win by ending an interview repeating those words.
“We’ll see,” Allen said this week, when asked about his remark.
The Bills are also 8-2 in their past 10 home games against Miami played in December or later, not including a 16-3 loss in Buffalo’s “home” outing played indoors in Toronto in 2008.
Dolphins veteran cornerback Xavien Howard remembers one thing about Miami’s last playoff game in the 2016 season.
“We got whooped,” he said, recalling Miami’s 30-12 loss at Pittsburgh in the wild-card round.
Howard is the lone Dolphin left who appeared in that game, with more than half (33) of the team’s roster having no playoff experience. Receiver Tyreek Hill leads Miami with 13 career postseason games — all with Kansas City, including the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win three years ago.
Thompson is 1-1 in two starts this season. He was selected in the seventh round out of Kansas State. He closed his career by going 21 of 28 for 259 yards and three TDs in the Wildcats’ 42-20 win over LSU in the Texas Bowl a year ago.
“I feel like I got a pretty good feel for what a playoff game kind of would look like just last week,” Thompson said of beating the Jets. “It was a win or go home type of situation for us, so getting to experience kind of what that felt like last week I think was helpful.”
AP Sports Writer Alanis Thames contributed.
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