By JOHN WAWROW
ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. — It took 11 weeks for Mario Williams and the Buffalo Bills’ oft-maligned defense to finally flex its muscle and show it’s capable of playing up to its high-priced potential.
Williams had one of three sacks and safety Jairus Byrd had a hand in forcing two of three turnovers in a stifling 19-14 victory over the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night.
“I’m just happy everyone saw what the Bills are all about,” defensive tackle Marcell Dareus said. “We’re not no pushover. We’re a whole ‘nother team.”
For one game, it sure looked that way.
A defense that entered the game ranked 31st in the NFL in yards allowed and dead last in giving up an average 31.67 points, limited the Dolphins to 184 yards and 16 first downs. Just as important, the defense closed it out by forcing turnovers on Miami’s final two drives.
Byrd intercepted rookie quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s pass with a diving catch at Buffalo’s 35 with 1:54 left. And Bryan Scott followed a little over a minute later, jumping in front of Tannehill’s pass intended for Davone Bess at midfield.
“Seeing the predicament we’re in, it was a must win,” Byrd said. “We dug this hole for ourselves.”
And here was the first step in attempting to dig out of it.
The Bills (4-6) snapped a three-game skid and won for only the second time in seven games to stay on the fringe of the AFC playoff hunt. Buffalo also ended several other inglorious skids, by beating a division rival for the first time in nine meetings, and snapping an 11-game prime-time drought that dated to 2001.
Leodis McKelvin opened the scoring 90 seconds in by returning a punt 79 yards for a touchdown in a game the Bills never trailed.
That made up for an offense that lacked finish. Rian Lindell hit four field goals, including a 42-yarder, as Buffalo failed to score an offensive touchdown despite four trips inside the Miami 20.
Marcus Thigpen scored on a 96-yard kickoff return and Bess scored on a 2-yard touchdown for Miami (4-6), which has lost three straight.
Tannehill’s struggles continued. He finished going 14 of 28 for 141 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. He was coming off a dreadful outing in which he threw three interceptions in a 37-3 loss to Tennessee last week. The No. 8 pick out of Texas A&M has thrown six TD passes and 11 interceptions.
“It’s really frustrating, especially with the success earlier in the year,” Tannehill said. “Being in situations where we’re going three-and-out or six-and-out, it’s frustrating. We have to be able to find a rhythm and get things going early on.”
It wasn’t all Tannehill’s fault as Dolphins’ usually sturdy defense gave up 120 yards rushing, including 91 to C.J. Spiller, who took over the bulk of the rushing duties in place of Fred Jackson (concussion).
After allowing 307 yards rushing in its first five games, Miami has given up 661 in its past five.
The Dolphins’ running game also sputtered.
Reggie Bush finished with 20 yards rushing, which marked a significant drop-off after he had a career-best 203 yards in 30-23 win last December during his previous visit to Orchard Park.
“We didn’t make any plays. It was not a good offensive performance,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “We were 0 for 7, I believe, at one point on third down. We had nothing going on.”
Miami finished converting just three of 10 third-down chances.
For Buffalo, it was a long-awaited breakout performance for a high-priced defense that entered the game among the NFL’s worst. Buffalo had ranked 31st in yards allowed and last in allowing an average of 31.67 points.
Williams was supposed to be the defense’s centerpiece after signing a six-year, $100 million contract March. He’s finally starting to play up to the deal, and his sack gave him a team-leading 5 1/2.
“It was definitely a must win,” Williams said. “With the way things turned out earlier in the season, we’ve got to come out and play like it’s the playoffs. And we’ve got to make plays and we’ve got to finish. It got close there at the end, but I’m glad we came out with it.”
The unit forced three turnovers after failing to produce one its past three games.
The 184 yards allowed were a season-low for Buffalo, and the fewest the defense has allowed since limiting Washington to 178 in a 23-0 win Oct. 30, 2011.
The Bills bounced back from a 37-31 loss at New England last weekend. And the defense was questioned after allowing a combined 1,201 yards over a two-game stretch in which the Bills were blown out 52-28 to New England and 45-3 at San Francisco.
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick finished 17 of 27 for 168 yards. Spiller also had three catches for 39 yards, while Stevie Johnson had six catches for 79 yards.
Fitzpatrick gave much of the credit to how well the defense played.
“The defense has been working so hard,” Fitzpatrick said. “There’s been a lot of criticism on them, but tonight was a dominating performance and something we can build on.”