Typically when a team makes the playoffs, there is a lot of hope and excitement surrounding their team. But for the Miami Dolphins, the exact opposite is the case. The Dolphins are entering the playoffs as if it is a death sentence for them, and it feels like their stint in the postseason will likely be a very short lived one.

That’s because Miami is arguably the most beat up team in the playoffs. They are going to have to start Skylar Thompson for the second straight game as Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater continue to deal with injuries. They aren’t the only guys missing either, as the Dolphins could be without several other key players for their Wild Card matchup with the Buffalo Bills.

The Dolphins wouldn’t have been favored to win even if Tagovailoa could have played, so they certainly aren’t going to be favored now that he’s out. Despite all the obstacles in their way, Miami isn’t going to go down without a fight, and they will do whatever they can to upset their division rival in the Bills. So with that in mind, it’s clear that this key X-Factor is going to have to step up and have a big game with Miami’s season on the line.

Dolphins X-Factor vs. Bills: Xavien Howard

Off the bat, it may seem like the Dolphins biggest X-Factor is going to come on offense. If Thompson can get anything going in the air, that may be Miami’s only shot of winning this game. Or if Tyreek Hill, their top playmaker, can rip off some big plays, it may open the door for the Dolphins to win this game.

The problem is that Thompson and the offense simply cannot be counted on in this one. You can’t fault Thompson for struggling, but he’s proven to be in over his head so far this season. Playing the Bills in the playoffs likely isn’t going to make things any better for him either, so it’s clear the defense is going to have to step up.

That shines a bright light on Xavien Howard, the Dolphins top cornerback. Howard is going to have his hands full against Buffalo, as he will be tasked with locking up Stefon Diggs for most of the afternoon. Slowing down Diggs is the biggest issue the Dolphins are going to have to deal with throughout this game.

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Howard didn’t have his best season in 2022, but he’s still one of the best cornerbacks in the game. There aren’t many guys who you can leave on one side of the field and know they are going to hold down the fort, but Howard is one of those guys. Of course, locking up Diggs is always a lot easier said than done.

Howard did a good job covering Diggs in the first two games these teams played against each other this season, and he will absolutely have to turn in another stellar effort if the Dolphins want any shot of winning this game. Again, the Dolphins are going to need their defense to deliver if they want to win this game, and it starts with Howard.

Limiting Diggs is key because the Bills offense relies heavily on his connection with Allen. You can slow down Diggs by throwing several different players his way, but slowing him down with just one player in Howard would give the Dolphins tons of different options. If Diggs forces safety help, or even draws more attention than normal, the Dolphins are toast.

If Howard can keep Diggs under wraps on his own, the Dolphins will have a shot to win this game. Of course, the threat of Josh Allen in general is enough to make opposing defenses shiver with fear, but taking away his top target changes everything. You can drop your safeties deeper into coverage to prevent home-run plays, you can set aside a linebacker or safety to spy on Allen in the pocket, or you can dial up more pressure on Allen and force him to improvise.

If Allen gets comfortable in the pocket and on the ground, the Bills will cruise to victory. Part of what gets him going is his connection with Diggs, and if that can be wiped out, or at least limited, the Bills could have a problem on their hands. Miami’s defense hasn’t exactly met expectations this season, but they have enough talent to make their opponents’ life difficult when they are playing their best football.

Diggs has put together some monster games this season, but the playmaking crew behind him hasn’t been nearly as consistent. Forcing Allen to piece things together without Diggs could give Miami an opportunity to win this game. Howard has a huge task in front of him, and while the Dolphins could still lose even if he has a good game, he may be the only player that can keep Miami competitive in this Wild Card matchup.