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Dolphins’ familiar struggle against Bills and other winning teams led to a season of falling short.

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MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Mike McDaniel downplayed the Dolphins’ struggles against tough competition earlier in the season, when Miami had plenty of time to reverse that trend.

On Sunday, after the Buffalo Bills beat Miami 21-14 and knocked the Dolphins down to the sixth seed in the AFC, McDaniel didn’t minimize his team’s frustrations.

“Hindsight is 20/20,” he said, “and there are a lot of different things we will evaluate because that is extremely disappointing. But I think that’s part of the National Football League, is if you give up an inch, you’ll be punished for it. We didn’t take care of the games we really needed to and that’s what happens.”

A month ago, the Dolphins were in position for the AFC’s top seed and had a 2 1/2-game cushion over Buffalo in the AFC East. But miscues and deficiencies on offense have been glaring and alarming, and instead of starting the postseason at home, the Dolphins will head to Kansas City to face the third-seeded Chiefs in what’s expected to be a frigid wild-card game Saturday night.

The Dolphins’ loss to the Bills was a microcosm of their season: They’ve dominated bad teams by scoring at a historic pace, but have looked like a shell of themselves against winning foes. They finished the season 1-5 against playoff teams, getting their lone victory in Week 16 against the Dallas Cowboys.

Against playoff opponents, the Dolphins averaged 17.7 points, while putting up 35.5 points in their other 11 games. They were outgained 964 yards to 650 in losses to Baltimore and Buffalo to close the season.

“When we watch the film the following day after playing these teams, there’s still success being had within the scheme,” tight end Durham Smythe said. “There’s just a small thing here, a small thing there that stalls the drives, which prevents us from getting points. It’s really about cleaning everything up, small things, because it’s not like when we play these teams that we’re not scoring as much. They’re just completely overpowering us.”

The Dolphins were without 1,000-yard receiver Jaylen Waddle and 1,000-yard rusher Raheem Mostert in those two games, but Miami’s other playmakers shoulder part of the blame.

Tua Tagovailoa threw two interceptions in Miami’s final two games with a 60.5% completion rate. Tyreek Hill, who finished as the NFL’s leading receiver with 1,799 yards, had some crucial drops. He dropped a wide-open potential touchdown against Baltimore and couldn’t haul in several catches on Sunday.

“When you’re a player of his caliber that our team depends on so much, that can be a little misleading in terms of he gets a ton of targets,” McDaniel said. “When we go to him in high-stakes situations, it’s not like he’s just gliding in the open field. They’re pretty contested. He’s proven time and time again why we continue to go to him. There’s zero people, including myself, that are concerned about a pattern.”

Hill has been dealing with an ankle injury and took a hard hit late in Sunday’s game. He wasn’t in on the final play when Tagovailoa threw an interception to Bills safety Taylor Rapp that was intended for Chase Claypool.

WHAT’S WORKING

The Dolphins were in position to win entering the fourth quarter thanks to three takeaways by their defense. The unit that was criticized early in the season had progressed to a top-nine defense entering the game and limited Buffalo’s offense to 14 points. Miami enters the postseason with a takeaway in 11 straight games, which is the longest active streak in the NFL.

WHAT NEEDS HELP

After putting up 14 points and 218 yards in the first half — buoyed by 101 yards rushing — the Dolphins recorded 57 yards the rest of the way. Miami did not score after halftime, and only ran the ball three times for 7 yards during that span.

STOCK UP

De’Von Achane has remained productive. The rookie running back had 163 yards on 24 carries and two touchdowns in the Dolphins’ final two games. His average of 7.8 yards per carry was the best in NFL history by a running back with at least 100 carries.

STOCK DOWN

Tagovailoa completed 65.1% of his passes in six games against playoff teams with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. He had just one multiple-touchdown outing in those games.

INJURIES

McDaniel said he’s optimistic about the possible return of Waddle (high ankle sprain) and Mostert (knee/ankle) on Saturday. … LB Jerome Baker had wrist surgery following Sunday’s loss, and LB Andrew Van Ginkel suffered a foot injury. Both will miss the wild-card game and are not expected to return if Miami advances in the postseason. … McDaniel said the team is not expecting to have CB Xavien Howard (foot) back Saturday.

KEY NUMBER

0 — The expected temperature in degrees Fahrenheit when Saturday’s game kicks off at Arrowhead Stadium.

NEXT STEPS

The last team to win three road games and reach the Super Bowl was the Tom Brady-led Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2000. As the AFC’s No. 6 seed, the Dolphins will play on the road with the exception of an improbable AFC championship meeting with seventh-seeded Pittsburgh.

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AP NFL: https://apnews.com/hub/NFL

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