The Buffalo Bills (13-3) are having their best season since the Super Bowl runs in the early 1990s, but they would love to win their first playoff game since the 1995 season. The Indianapolis Colts (11-5) have won 15 playoff games since the last Buffalo playoff win, but Frank Reich’s team is looking to win with the running game and defense instead of just relying on a quarterback.
Indianapolis Colts vs. Buffalo Bills
Saturday, January 09, 2021 – 01:05 PM EST at Bills Stadium
In a role reversal, Buffalo is the team entering this game with the hot quarterback after Josh Allen’s breakout year rewrote the franchise record books. A Hail Mary in Arizona is the only thing preventing the Bills from riding a 10-game winning streak. The Bills are a 7-point favorite at most NFL betting sites in the first game on this wild card weekend.
Colts: Good Enough to Go on a Run?
The 2020 Colts are a good football team, but it usually takes greatness on at least one side of the ball to go on a Super Bowl run. According to Football Outsiders’ DVOA formula, the Colts finished No. 12 on offense, No. 7 on defense, and No. 10 on special teams. They join the Bills, Saints, and Ravens as the only four teams this season to rank in the top 12 for all three units, but the Colts are the only team in that group that does not have a top-five unit and it shows on the NFL odds board.
Football Outsiders and Pro Football Reference also both rank the Colts as having faced the easiest schedule in 2020, which included the Jaguars (twice), Jets, and Bengals. The Colts lost to the Jaguars in Week 1 (the only Jacksonville win of 2020) and had a tough time closing them out again on Sunday despite taking a 20-0 lead early. The Colts finished 2-4 vs. teams with a winning record. Buffalo (5-2) was one of only three teams with a winning record this year in such games.
Turnover margin has been where the Colts have had their most success, or luck if you want to call it, this season. After all, this team swept the Texans after Houston fumbled near the goal line at the end of both games. The Colts had the third-fewest giveaways (15), the fewest lost fumbles (four), and the fifth-most takeaways (25) on defense. That adds up to a plus-10 turnover differential, which was only bested by the Titans (plus-11). Turnovers can be fluky, but the Buffalo defense was No. 2 in generating a takeaway on 15.4% of drives this season.
The Colts have lost left tackle Anthony Castonzo to a season-ending injury. Philip Rivers did not take a sack on Sunday, but he took a season-high five of them in Pittsburgh without Castonzo (or right tackle Braden Smith, who is back) available in Week 16. Rivers has generally been protected very well this season. The Colts have the second-lowest pressure rate allowed this season according to Pro Football Reference.
Rivers had a solid season at 39 years old, but the Colts are wise to not ask him to carry the offense at this stage of his career. Since 2018, Rivers is 1-11 when he attempts at least 40 passes in a game. By comparison, Josh Allen is 5-2 this season when he throws at least 40 passes. Fortunately, Indianapolis has seen its running game take off in recent weeks once rookie Jonathan Taylor emerged as the best back on the roster. Taylor has rushed for at least 74 yards in six straight games, including a season-high 253 yards on Sunday against the Jaguars.
The only home game this season that Buffalo lost was when Kansas City mixed the run and pass at will on the defense and rushed for 245 yards, easily the worst performance by the Buffalo run defense this season. Taylor is going to have to hit some big runs to help the Colts score enough points and keep the Buffalo offense on the sideline. The Colts were a mediocre situational offense this season, finishing 22nd in third down conversion rate and 17th in red zone touchdown rate.
The Colts were 1-4 when they lost the turnover battle and 1-3 when they did not rush for 100 yards this season. It is crucial in this matchup for the Colts to not be one-dimensional on offense and to protect the ball better than Buffalo to be able to shock the world and sportsbooks. Even when losing the turnover battle, the Bills were still 2-1 this season, but that is the difference between a great offense (Bills) and a good one (Colts).
Bills: Josh Allen’s Moment to Shine
Josh Allen just had one of the best breakout seasons by a quarterback in his third year in NFL history. This was such a dramatic change in his play from the first two years that if he continues to have success, they will talk about Allen’s 2020 season decades from now as a warning to not give up too soon on a young quarterback. The odds are still against a quarterback who does not shine in his first or second year as a starter, but Allen blew away the odds in 2020.
Allen had 10 games with at least 280 passing yards in 2020 after never doing it in his first two seasons. His completion percentage increased by 10.4 percentage points. He threw 37 touchdowns after throwing 30 touchdowns in his first 28 games. He almost cut his sack rate in half as well. Allen went from being the quarterback the team tried to hide to win games to the franchise player they rely on the most. Buffalo barely rushed for 1,300 yards this year when you remove Allen’s rushing contributions.
What changed? It was not the coaching staff as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been there since 2018. There have been some interesting clips looking at Allen changing his throwing mechanics to become a more accurate passer this season. There is also the pandemic and empty crowds that have contributed to this being the highest-scoring season in NFL history.
It was never easier to throw a touchdown pass than it was in 2020, so if Allen never approaches these numbers again in his career, we’ll have to contribute some of the success to the environment of 2020.
All of those things can apply, but the other big change is the addition of Stefon Diggs, who led the league in catches (127) and receiving yards (1,535). The Bills added Cole Beasley and John Brown a year ago but bringing in Diggs has made this receiving corps complete. With Allen growing in Daboll’s offense, this unit has turned into one of the best in the NFL.
The Bills have scored at least 24 points in every game this season except for that three-game slump in October. Buffalo also has the highest conversion rate on third down (49.7%) this season. Over the last five games, Allen has thrown 15 touchdowns to two interceptions, so the Bills enter the playoffs on a hot streak.
Allen has never faced the Colts before, so he will be seeing a lot of these players for the first time. The Colts also blitzed less than any defense in the league except for the Chargers this year. They would prefer to play it safe and tackle well than to bring a lot of pressure. The Colts had the second-fewest missed tackles (70) in the league according to Pro Football Reference, but their pass rush is not dominant, led by DeForest Buckner’s 9.5 sacks.
This could be an interesting matchup since Allen has been blitzed 39 more times than any other quarterback this season. He has gotten very used to teams sending pressure against him, but the Colts may not do that much at all given their season trends.
In his first playoff game against Houston last year, Allen did not show much patience. He fluctuated wildly between plays that were brilliant and ugly, such as his ill-advised lateral attempt at midfield with a minute left. If he can keep his patience this week and take what the Colts give him, then he has a great chance to deliver the Bills their first playoff win in 25 years.
The Bills have won six straight games by double digits, which has only been done 22 times since the 1970 merger. Of the last 16 playoff teams to do that, 14 won their first playoff game by double digits as well. Only the 2005 Colts and 1987 49ers went one-and-done.
When Rivers has lost on the road in the playoffs, all four losses were by at least seven points, with three by multiple scores. I am not enamored with the idea of him keeping up with the second-highest scoring team in the league in 30-degree temperatures. This season, the Colts have already lost by multiple scores to Cleveland (32-23), Baltimore (24-10), Tennessee (45-26), and blew a 17-point lead in the second half in Pittsburgh.
The only thing that would give me serious pause about including the Bills in my NFL picks is the health of the receiving corps. Diggs has been limited with an oblique injury. Beasley missed the last game with a knee injury and may be out again. His replacement, Isaiah McKenzie, is limited with an ankle injury. We rarely get to see the full group as Brown has missed half the year too, but now he’s the healthiest one along with rookie Gabriel Davis. But as long as Diggs is a go for the Bills, then I would have no problem with trusting Buffalo to win a 30-20 type of game.
*The pick reflects the line at the moment the writer made the play, the odds at the beginning of this article show the live line movement. Since the lines might vary, don’t forget to refer back to our live odds.