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Greg Cote: Everybody suddenly loves Tua & Dolphins, but can the bandwagon survive a Buffalo stampede?

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Miami Dolphins quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa during the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022 in Baltimore.

Miami Dolphins quarterbacks coach Darrell Bevell talks with quarterback Tua Tagovailoa (1) during the second quarter against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium on Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022 in Baltimore. (David Santiago/Miami Herald/TNS)

MIAMI — Everyone must face their monster.

The small child’s might lurk in the bedroom closest, until he is led in with a flashlight to learn it does not exist.

But sometimes the monster is real, and the only way to make it go away is to confront it and defeat it. It is so in sports.

The Florida Panthers held their media day Wednesday to open training camp. They enjoyed their best regular season ever last year and their furthest playoff advance since 1996. Then the went eye to eye with their monster, cowered and fell. The Tampa Bay Lightning swept them.

Miami Hurricanes football does not see its monster until November 19. It is the ogre that blocks UM’s path in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the gatekeeper-beast that in three meetings since 2015 has beaten the Canes by a combined 138-20. They will travel to face their nemesis. The game is at Clemson.

The Miami Dolphins’ monster is here. Now. At Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday.

The Buffalo Bills are hardly a feared rival of long standing. Once, they were a plaything-laughingstock. The Bills were 0-for-the-‘70s against Miami. Literally. Twenty games that decade and the Fins were 20-0.

Now? The Bills have beaten Miami seven times in a row, are No. 1 in ESPN’s power rankings and the betting favorites to finally deliver Buffalo its long-elusive first Super Bowl title. And quarterback Josh Allen is the favorite to win league MVP.

The Bills are a monster, yes. They crushed the reigning Super Bowl champion Rams 31-10 and then obliterated the reigning AFC No. 1 seed Titans 41-7.

Whether the Dolphins can do better or daresay even win on Sunday is the litmus test for Miami. It is the NFL’s Game of the Week. National attention on the Fins has spiked since that miracle 42-38 comeback win in Baltimore led heroically by Tua Tagovailoa’s six-touchdown day.

Fins coach Mike McDaniel understands the challenge. Doesn’t try to shovel any of that just-another-game nonsense. The candor is why Your Friend The Media likes him as much as his players do.

“You don’t ignore the obvious. The Buffalo Bills have won the division and done an unbelievable job in all three phases, so what better opportunity for the Miami Dolphins than playing the best and seeing where you’re at?” McDaniel says. “You don’t hide from it. I think you embrace the fact that they’re a good football team and that there’s one way to be put in the category of good football teams: you beat good football teams. It’s an opportunity for us to see where we’re at. You bask in that opportunity.”

Miami had devolved into a regional team, now suddenly America is paying attention.

That makes Sunday the perfect time for the high-flying Dolphins to make their statement and declare their arrival, and the perfect time to fail.

It has been amusing to watch the Dolphins’ empty bandwagon fill so suddenly.

I have been nearly alone in the media in extolling Tagovailoa against two-plus years of criticism and doubt. Now we see what an incredibly accurate QB can do when surrounded by enough talent and weaponry.

A few weeks ago in my annual preseason NFL Team Rankings I had Miami No. 5 overall. I was called a homer. ESPN ranked the Dolphins 19th. Below average.

Guess where Miami is in the Worldwide Leader’s newest ranking? No. 5.

Tua on Wednesday was named the NFL’s AFC Offensive Player of the Week. Suddenly he has skyrocketed to a tie for sixth with Tom Brady in odds to win league MVP (per sportsbetting.ag), ahead of Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford, Joe Burrow and Russell Wilson.

Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle, off a combined 22 catches for 361 yards and four TDs last week, are the Fins’ most dynamic duo since Marks Bothers Clayton and Duper electrified the ‘80s.

Miami’s Mike McDaniel is now the coach of the year favorite.

All of it is so, so fragile

Consecutive winning seasons (though no playoffs) and now a 2-0 start have earned budding attention but no benefit of doubt. Lose big to the Bills Sunday and momentum screeches to a stop, maybe shifts in reverse. And you know the doubters who saw six TDs as some absurd aberration are waiting for Tua to fail. Expecting it, wanting it.

If Sunday is a David & Goliath tale, the roles are firmly cast. The challenge and onus are squarely on Miami. Failing is the easy course so it is clear what the Dolphins must do:

Be the monster.

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