ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — The referee warned the Buffalo Bills fans inside Highmark Stadium as if he were a teacher scolding school children at recess.
If their flying snowballs hit a Miami Dolphins player during live action, the referee said, the Bills would be penalized 15 yards. Security guards in neon yellow jackets had already migrated toward the Miami bench to dissuade fans from pelting the players and coaches there. The large video monitor over the end zone also repeated the message.
“That was great,” Bills safety Jordan Poyer said in a postgame news conference Saturday. “That was the first time I had ever heard that.”
The intensity of the Bills fans highlighted the increased stakes of the contest, as the divisional rivals jockeyed for playoff seeding in the loaded A.F.C. The Bills won the game, 32-29, clinching a playoff berth and edging closer toward home-field advantage throughout the postseason. It is the fifth time in Coach Sean McDermott’s six seasons at Buffalo that the team has reached the playoffs. The Bills have been regarded by sports books and pundits as Super Bowl favorites.
“It’s humbling,” McDermott said. “It really is. That’s how I feel about it. I’m humbled to be a part of it in this great town that doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves.”
A 25-yard field goal by Buffalo’s Tyler Bass ended a back-and forth affair between two of the league’s best offenses. The Bills marched 86 yards in the game’s closing six minutes to break a 29-29 tie. With 50 seconds remaining in the game, Miami defensive back Kader Kohou was called for a pass interference penalty against Bills receiver Isaiah McKenzie, bringing the ball to the Dolphins’ 13-yard line. That set the Bills up in prime field position for an easy kick to win the game.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen completed 25 of 40 passes for 304 yards and four touchdowns, while Miami’s Tua Tagovailoa completed 17 of 30 passes for 234 yards and two scores. Allen also added 77 rushing yards on 10 carries, helping to avenge the 21-19 loss the Bills suffered to the Dolphins in September.
The game was played in temperatures as low as 27 degrees Fahrenheit. Though snow flurries hit the area earlier in the day, a snowstorm projected to affect the game at halftime stood at bay until the middle of the fourth quarter. By the final whistle, the field, which was once clear, was sodded with a sheet of fresh snow. (The fans had, ahem, laid a little bit of the groundwork with their snowballs early in the game.)
All week, the Dolphins tried to downplay the potential impact of the frigid conditions. Miami Coach Mike McDaniel on Wednesday wore a T-shirt that read, “I Wish It Were Colder.” The team practiced on the indoor fields at its training facility in Miami Gardens, Fla., with the air conditioning turned up. Linebacker Jaelan Phillips and cornerback Noah Igbinoghene participated in pregame warm-ups on Saturday shirtless with their bare chests exposed to the chill.
McDaniel told reporters he did not believe the elements affected the Dolphins’ performance in the loss, their third straight.
“I know a lot of people would like to make it about the weather, but our team never did,” McDaniel said. “It was cool for you guys to talk about, but it was more about the football.”
The Bills led at halftime, 21-13, after Allen fired a four-yard touchdown pass to James Cook as time expired in the second quarter. The Bills allowed only one touchdown to the Dolphins in the first half — an 11-yard run by Salvon Ahmed — despite Miami entering the red zone three times. Allen threw three touchdowns before halftime as the Dolphins defense struggled to contain him and his receivers while he scrambled. Allen also was not sacked in the first half.
Then the Bills got sloppy. Buffalo converted none of its four third-down attempts in the third quarter, sputtering after an explosive first half. But the Dolphins, who entered Saturday with the league’s ninth-best scoring offense, scored two touchdowns in the period: Tagovailoa connected with Jaylen Waddle for a 67-yard touchdown, and with the speedy Tyreek Hill for a 20-yard score. The Bills finished the quarter down, 26-21.
“You’re going to have ups and downs in every game,” Bills tight end Dawson Knox said. “There’s going to be those lulls. The best teams find ways to push through that. They find ways to win, whether it’s by one or 100.”
Miami stretched its lead in the fourth after Phillips strip-sacked Allen and the Dolphins recovered the ball. Five plays later, their lead widened to 29-21 with 11:56 remaining in the game after a successful 47-yard field goal. Allen was sacked twice in the second half as offensive line protection wore down and Miami’s pass rush began penetrating the backfield more often.
But the Bills clawed back. Allen threw a five-yard touchdown pass to Knox with about nine minutes remaining the fourth quarter. Allen then dove over the end zone for the two-point conversion, which officials ruled as successful after a lengthy review, tying the game at 29. The Dolphins spent the next three minutes trying to score, but ended up punting, paving the way for Buffalo’s game-winning drive.
Since the off-season, after the Bills added linebacker Von Miller to an already-stout roster, Super Bowl expectations have grown immensely for the Bills. They started 6-1 before losing back-to-back games to the Jets and Minnesota Vikings. Both of those contests were decided by three points, and ended in Bills losses partly because of sloppy play and turnovers in the second half.
The Bills have since won five straight games, becoming one of the most complete teams in the league. Entering Saturday, the offense ranked second in yards, and the defense ranked second in points allowed even after Miller injured his knee against the Detroit Lions on Thanksgiving. But despite their lofty aspirations, Allen said he does not want to think too far ahead.
“Can’t win the Super Bowl unless you make the playoffs,” Allen said. “That’s goal No. 1 down. Goal No. 2 is to clinch the division. That’s how we’ll take it, one game at a time.”