One of Week 1’s most exciting matchups will occur in Orchard Park, where Rex Ryan’s Buffalo Bills can send a strong message to the rest of the league with an upset win over the Indianapolis Colts.
After opening at 47.5, heavy betting on the under line has dropped the game’s total figure to 45 points. That total ranks seventh-highest among the 15 remaining games on the slate, so Vegas has reached a comprise between Indy’s high-powered offense and a Bills defense expected to rank among the league’s best. While that type of matchup might look like a matchup to avoid at first blush, circumstances suggest that this game could be a lower-scoring contest than the public expects.
For one, the Indianapolis Colts haven’t necessarily distinguished themselves against top-tier defenses. Every offense is going to look worse against the top defensive units, but the Colts’ splits were particularly pronounced in 2014. Football Outsiders uses a stat called DVOA which measures success rate, then adjusts for opponent strength. In 10 games against top-15 DVOA defenses last season (playoffs included), Indianapolis matched his regular-season points per game average (27.1 points) just once—a 33-28 Week 6 win over the Houston Texans. That does somewhat unfairly exclude two 27-point outings against the Eagles and Bengals, but both those games were also at home, unlike this week’s season-opener.
The Buffalo Bills finished second in defensive DVOA last year, behind only Seattle, and returns much of the same core that thrived in Jim Schwartz’s straightforward 4-3 scheme. Complex schemes don’t necessarily produce better results—just ask Rex’s brother Rob in New Orleans—but Ryan’s hybrid fronts and blitz disguises should maximize the superior athleticism throughout Buffalo’s front seven. The quartet of Marcell Dareus, Kyle Williams, Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes on the defensive line rivals any in the league, and the rush should theoretically feast against an Indy line employing four new starters from 2014. Left tackle Anthony Castonzo and right tackle Jack Mewhort (who played left guard in 2014) are the only holdovers, while the trio of Lance Louis, Khlaed Holmes and Todd Herremans represents a fairly shaky interior.
Based on recent precedent and simple personnel analysis, we can expect the Colts to score roughly 24 to 27 points if the game flows normally. That covers most of the total, but then the onus shifts to the Tyrod Taylor-led Bills offense to provide about 20 more points to push this line to the overs. Taylor represents a total enigma with just 35 pass attempts over four years as Joe Flacco’s backup in Baltimore. In truth, this might be part of the reason he won the three-way quarterback derby over Matt Cassel and EJ Manuel, as teams simply have less data on how to defend Taylor.
It’s also extremely difficult to find a historic precedent similar to Taylor that might give us some hints on how the first-time starter will fare. According to the invaluable Pro-Football-Reference, there are 41 quarterbacks who have thrown between 20 and 100 passes over the first four years of their career (dating back to 2000). That does include players who haven’t actually played four years yet (Johnny Manziel, Jimmy Garoppolo, etc.), but among those who were multi-year backups to start their careers, there’s scant evidence of long-term competence. Brian Hoyer, who attempted 96 passes over the first four years of his career as Tom Brady’s backup in New England, is easily the closest example. Taylor might be most reminiscent of Dennis Dixon, a fellow late-round pick who got his chance when Ben Roethlisberger was suspended four games to open the 2010 season. Dixon was injured in his second game and never started another NFL contest, bouncing around to four different teams over the next four years without ever playing in another game.
Taylor isn’t the only change on Buffalo’s offense, of course, as the Bills did add LeSean McCoy and Percy Harvin to their skill position arsenal in the offseason. Ryan’s tendencies from New York would suggest a heavy workload for McCoy, but that’s not necessarily advantageous against Indianapolis. Despite their miserable run defense failures against the Patriots in recent years, the Colts finished a respectable 19th in run defense DVOA last year. Obviously that’s still subpar, but it suggests a unit that is merely below-average rather than catastrophically leaky. Indy did beef up its linebacker depth with veteran additions Trent Cole, Nate Irving and (most recently) Sio Moore this offseason, giving the Colts the second-level depth they didn’t possess last year.
The midweek movement on this line on the NFL odds board has made the over-under a less enticing proposition than it was on Monday, but there’s still value in a matchup where the public appears confused. As both teams find their footing early in the season, look for a slightly lower scoring matchup than what the mainstream perception might expect, so grab the Under with your NFL picks.
NFL Pick: 'Under' 45 (-110) at 5Dimes