1:00 PM EST, CBS – Line: Bills -7, Over/Under: 50
It’s a playoff rematch on tap in Western New York, as the Indianapolis Colts travel to Highmark Stadium looking for some payback against the Buffalo Bills, who suddenly have company atop of the AFC East. After a slow start to the campaign, the Colts (5-5, 2nd in AFC South) are on the come-up, winning five of their last seven games, though (Head Coach) Frank Reich & Co are no doubt ruing the missed opportunities that they’ve had. Indianapolis has struggled mightily to close this season, counting three occasions in which they’ve lost when leading in the fourth quarter (most in the NFL), while being outscored by forty-two points in the fourth quarter and overtime despite besting their opponents by eighty-one points through the first three quarters of play. Two of those losses came in overtime, the most recent coming against the Tennessee Titans, which marked their second defeat this season to their division rivals, creating a sizable gulf within the AFC South (3 games). As a result, Indy is virtually relegated to competing for a wild card at this point, with their margin for error razor thin given the glut of teams gunning for those final three playoff spots. With that said, Reich’s charges have clawed their way back to .500 after a pair of victories over cellar-dwellers such as the New York Jets (45-30) and Jacksonville Jaguars (23-16), whom they bested by a combined twenty-one points. Unfortunately, their fourth quarter woes persisted in these two contests; the Colts raced out to a commanding 42-16 lead over the Jets two weeks ago, only let their foot off the proverbial gas pedal as Gang Green went on to make it look more respectable with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter, while establishing a comfortable 20-9 advantage through three periods against Jacksonville, before the Jags bested them 8-3 in the final stanza of play. Thankfully, neither opponent was capable of really threatening them from an offensive perspective, though that won’t be the case moving forward, for Indianapolis faces one of the toughest remaining schedules in the National Football League. Apart from a bye week bracketed by trips to the Texans and Jaguars, they face the likes of Bills, Buccaneers, Patriots, Cardinals, and Raiders, who together boast a combined record of 31-16 (.659). Needless to say, that’s a daunting gauntlet for a team looking to make their third postseason appearance in four years under Reich. So, why haven’t they been able to close these games, you ask? Well, despite forcing the second-most turnovers in the league thus far (21) and enjoying a healthy Plus-11 turnover differential, the pass defense hasn’t been up to par, ranking twentieth in yards allowed (249.9), twenty-fourth in net yards per attempt (6.8), and next-to-last in passing touchdowns (23), all the while capitulating far too frequently in the red zone, where opponents have punched it in on 67.7% of their attempts (24th Overall). While (Defensive Coordinator) Matt Eberflus has some playmakers in the front seven, particularly (Tackle) DeForest Buckner (45 TKL, 6 TFL, 11 QBH, 4.5 SK, 2 PD) and (Linebacker) Darius Leonard (73 TKL, 3 TFL, 2 QBH, 4 FF, 3 FR, 2 INT, 5 PD), but the Secondary has been feast or famine, just as liable to get their hands on the football as they are to get burned for six. Fortunately, they have one of the main ingredients to maintaining a lead: a serious running game. The Colts rank sixth in rushing yards (136.3) and third in yards per carry (5.1), and have begun to really lean on this facet of their attack, which at this point has become the strength of the team in general. In their five wins they’ve churned out 169.6 yards on the ground, including a whopping 193.5 in the last two games alone, in comparison to a more modest 103.0 yards per outing in their five losses. Behind one of the better Offensive Lines in the NFL, (Sophomore Tailback) Jonathan Taylor (161 CAR, 937 YDS, 5.8 Y/A, 9 TD) has become the league’s second-leading rusher, and given the injury to (2020 rushing champion) Derrick Henry, there is a very good chance that he’ll earn that honor by season’s end. The 22-year old came on strong towards the end of 2020, and after a tepid start has really begun to pick up steam of late; Taylor has rushed for 109.4 yards on a healthy 6.4 yards per carry over the last seven games, and has served as his team’s barometer for success, logging 128.6 yards in their five wins opposed to 58.8 in their five losses. Furthermore, he’s really begun to grow as a pass-catcher, which has only added another dimension to the attack, hauling in twenty-nine receptions for 303 yards and a touchdown. His emergence has also gone a long way towards making life easier for (veteran Quarterback) Carson Wentz (63.5%, 2,378 YDS, 6.38 NY/A, 17 TD, 3 INT, 55.3 QBR), who is finally healthy after fighting through numerous injuries that plagued him in the early stages of this second act of his once-promising career. At this point, you should be familiar with Wentz’s story; there was perhaps no player in the NFL that needed a change of scenery more so than Wentz, who had fallen out of favor with the coaching staff, the locker room, the media, and the faithful in Philadelphia over a campaign in which he regressed considerably before eventually being benched for the rest of their run, only to find a new home in Indianapolis with Reich, who helped launch his career back in 2016. Of course, Wentz is the fourth different starting Quarterback that Reich has managed in as many years since arriving in Indy back in 2018, with the hopes that he can indeed rekindle the spark that made him an MVP candidate five years ago. And for the most part, he’s performed above expectations; the 29-year-old has completed 63.5% of his attempts for 237.8 yards per game on 6.38 net yards per attempt with seventeen touchdowns in comparison to just three interceptions, which is by far and away his best ratio in years, particularly after a season in which he led the league with fifteen interceptions. Improved protection has also helped him immensely, for after being sacked an NFL-high FIFTY times has suffered only eighteen in ten outings, effectively cutting that sack percentage in half (5.1%). Though he wasn’t on the team during last January’s 27-24 loss on Wild Card Weekend, one figure that he would give the Colts a better chance in Buffalo than his predecessor, Philip Rivers, did, for his arm strength is far better suited for the gusts of wind that permeate through Orchard Park this time of year. With that said, the visitors still amassed 472 total yards in that affair, dominating time of possession (34:17) on the strength of 163 rushing yards and converting 9-of-17 third downs. The difference came on fourth down, where they were denied on half of their four tries, including their final possession which bogged down at midfield outside of field goal range.
Meanwhile, in an AFC that has featured no dominant teams thus far, the Bills (6-3, 1st in AFC East) figure to be one of the few sides with a legitimate chance at securing home field in the playoffs, though they’re going to have shake off a good deal of competition along the way. Indeed, the race for first place is heating up in not just the conference, but the division to boot, with the Patriots hot on their heels trailing by just one game in the loss column. For those wondering, these two teams have yet to meet in 2021, with a looming Monday night showdown in two weeks likely to have plenty to say on how this all plays out. In the meantime, why is Buffalo one of the prime candidates for no. one in the AFC, you ask? Well, let’s start with (All-Pro Quarterback) Josh Allen (66.3%, 2,602 YDS, 6.94 NY/A, 19 TD, 6 INT, 60.5 QBR), whose meteoric rise has coincided with his team’s ascension up the pecking order. Few players have continued to improve so much from one year to the next, but the 25-year-old is certainly one of the front-runners for MVP honors thus far, completing 66.3% of his passes for an average of 289.1 yards on 6.94 net yards per attempt, with nineteen touchdowns and six interceptions through nine games. Furthermore, 6′-5″, 237 lbs. he continues to be a load to bring down in the open field, where his mobility has made him a sizable factor in the run game where he’s churned out another 35.8 yards per game on 5.5 yards per carry with three more scores. In many ways, Allen is their most effective rusher, which has gotten them in trouble on some occasions, for there have been times in which the Offense has appeared to rely TOO MUCH on his exploits; this was certainly the case in a perplexing 9-6 loss to the Jaguars two weeks ago, in which the visitors managed just seventy-two yards on fourteen carries, with the Quarterback accounting for all but twenty-two of them. As a result, the attack never got into a rhythm with three turnovers and an embarrassing twelve penalties for 118 lost yards compounding their woes. This lack of diversification in the run game is a major reason for their struggles in the red zone as well, for while the Bills have had no trouble moving the football between the twenties, converting 48.7% of their third downs (2nd Overall), they’ve routinely bogged down in the red zone, scoring a touchdown on just 61.0% of their opportunities (14th Overall). Simply put, this team wants to throw the football, and they’re very good at it, but as we all know it becomes increasingly difficult to do so successfully inside the 20-yard line, where there is less real estate to spread out defenses, and if these guys are kicking field goals they’re not nearly as formidable. It’ll be interesting if (Offensive Coordinator) Brian Daboll will eventually try to manufacture the running game as the weather become less-tenable, but there is a very good chance that this simply who they are, for better or for worse. With that said, there is plenty of optimism that they’re approach could propel them to the Super Bowl because their Defense has returned to it’s previous standard since (Head Coach) Sean McDermott arrived in Western New York five years ago. McDermott made his bones on the defensive side of the football, and his troops’ regression in 2020 had to be disappointing for the 47-year-old. Buffalo second and third in total defense in 2018 to 2019 only to slump to fourteenth last season, yielding 352.5 total yards a year ago, including a dismal 417.0 yards in their three playoff games. This year they’ve skyrocketed to the top of the NFL, leading the league in a slew of categories including points allowed (15.0), total defense (274.1), first downs (147), takeaways (24), net yards per pass (5.1), passing touchdown allowed (6), takeaways (24), interceptions (15), and third down defense (29.5%). The biggest difference between this season and its predecessor has been in the red zone, where after granting a generous 65.5% success rate (28th Overall) have been far more stingy in yielding a touchdown on just 45.8% of their opportunities (2nd Overall). Granted, these figures are certainly skewed due to the fact that they’ve faced some particularly poor Offenses, including the Dolphins (twice), Texans, Jaguars, and Jets, who have all averaged fewer than 18.0 points per game, even shutting out Miami and Houston. Fortunately, the Bills have performed well against the rest of their opponents, relegating the Steelers to 252 total yards, while limiting the mighty Chiefs attack to twenty points on the strength of forcing four turnovers. However, this unit is sure to be tested over the course of the second half of the season, with their run defense in particular to be placed under the microscope. McDermott’s charges were exploited against the run last year, yielding 119.6 yards on the ground (17th Overall) on 4.6 yards per attempt (26th Overall), and while they’ve done a complete 180 in this regard, permitting just 83.9 yards (3rd Overall) on 3.8 yards per carry (3rd Overall), their opposition has often been forced to abandon the run altogether after falling behind early, evidenced by the 22.3 rushing plays that they’ve defended, the fourth-fewest in the NFL thus far. The only two strong Offenses that they faced were the Chiefs and Titans, and despite being done in by four turnovers, the former still rushed for 120 yards, while the latter rolled up 146 yards on them courtesy of the aforementioned Derrick Henry. Why is this relevant, you ask? Well, of their eight remaining opponents, three of them currently reside in the top-10 in rushing yards, including the Patriots, whom as we stated earlier they will face twice. There is also a looming date with former AFC East nemesis and reigning Super Bowl champion, Tom Brady and the Buccaneers, before closing out the regular season with the struggling Falcons and Jets. We’re about to see how legitimate this team really is over the next month, for are they the outfit that laid an egg in Jacksonville, or are they the powerhouse that steamrolled the Jets in last weekend’s 45-17 romp in the Meadowlands? We’d imagine that McDermott and his coaching staff were all business throughout the week of practice leading up to last weekend’s affair, for Buffalo wasted NO time in putting their proverbial foot on the throat of their opponent, racking out to an early 10-0 lead before leading by as many as thirty-five points late in the third quarter. In the end, the visitors racked up a season-high 489 total yards on twenty-six first downs, including 139 rushing yards and four touchdowns on twenty-four attempts, while matching another season-best with five takeaways. Allen completed 21-of-28 passes for 366 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, while the run game was distributed economically between four different players amassing at least twenty-four yards. It also marked a return to form for (All-Pro Receiver) Stefon Diggs (56 REC, 750 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 4 TD), who hasn’t been nearly as prolific after leading the league in both receptions (127) and receiving yards (1,535) in 2020, hauling in eight catches for a season-high 162 yards and a touchdown.