The Buffalo Bills play the Houston Texans in the Wild Card Round of the NFL Playoffs on Saturday and, as the 4:35 PM Eastern game, they are the first match-up on the docket this postseason. Buffalo is making its second playoff appearance in three years, while the Texans are hosting a game as the No. 3 or No. 4 seed for the fourth time in five years under head coach Bill O’Brien.
The Bills have plenty of young players for whom this will be their first playoff game, although there are some veteran leaders who have made multiple playoff appearances before. Buffalo will need some magic from their big-time players if they expect to leave Houston with a victory.
Which players are we watching this week? Here’s our short list.
QB Josh Allen
Obviously. If Buffalo’s second-year quarterback, making his playoff debut, can come out firing, then the Bills have a great chance to advance to the Divisional Round of the playoffs for the first time since the 1995-1996 season. Allen has stepped up on big stages this year, playing especially well on the road and at the end of games. On the road this year, Allen’s numbers are better across the board, with a better completion percentage (62.1% vs. 54.9%), yards-per-game total (228.3 vs. 157.9), passing touchdowns (11 vs. 9), rushing touchdowns (7 vs. 2), quarterback rating (92.6 vs. 76.9), and rushing yards per game (35.5 vs. 28.3). He’s also protected the ball better away from home, as he threw five interceptions and fumbled ten times at New Era Field against four interceptions and only four fumbles on the road. In the fourth quarter of games this year, Allen completed 58-of-100 passes for 782 yards, eight touchdowns, and zero interceptions. If road Josh combines with fourth-quarter Josh for an entire game, then the Bills will be in great shape. Allen has shown flashes of growth this year, but one area where he’s continued to lack is consistency within games (from drive-to-drive, and even from play-to-play sometimes). Look for the Bills to give Allen some throws that he likes early in the game to establish a rhythm. Another thing to watch is Allen’s running game, which has been a lesser focus in recent weeks. Houston allows the second-most yards per rush to opposing quarterbacks at 5.6 yards per carry, so Allen may rediscover some running lanes this week.
WR Isaiah McKenzie
Devin Singletary is obvious, as are John Brown and Cole Beasley, so I want to focus on a forgotten man in the offense a bit in the diminutive McKenzie, who has logged the third-most snaps at receiver for the team this year. McKenzie is at his best when used on jet-sweeps and screen passes, and I think that the Bills can open up a different element of their offense if they commit to using their Swiss-Army knife this week. They put some of those motion plays on film in last week’s loss against the New York Jets, which could indicate that they don’t actually want to use those plays much this week. However, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to test Houston’s defense to the boundaries by at least giving them some of the same looks this week. McKenzie only had eight carries for 49 yards this season, but it seemed like those runs worked every time. He’s so fast that teams have to respect him when he comes in motion, so at worst he’s someone who will keep Houston’s dynamite edge rushers honest on Saturday.
LT Dion Dawkins
You already know that Dawkins will have his hands full with All-Pro edge rusher J.J. Watt set to return ahead of schedule from a torn pectoral muscle. Dawkins has had a much better season than he did last year, when he allowed eight sacks and committed 11 penalties. He still committed too many penalties, though he trimmed it to seven this year. Where he improved was in sacks allowed, as Dawkins was only responsible for 3.5 sacks this year. Whether it’s Watt or fellow pass rusher Whitney Mercilus lined up across from him, Dawkins will have to play at his best in order to keep Allen on his feet.
DE Shaq Lawson
Buffalo’s top pass rusher hasn’t been Jerry Hughes or Trent Murphy this year, but instead it’s been Lawson, the former first-round pick whose fifth-year option was declined in the offseason. Lawson is expected to return from a hamstring injury suffered in Week 16 against the New England Patriots, and if he can continue to play at the level he’s played this year, then it would be a big boost for a Bills defense matching up against a tough Texans offense. Lawson has been able to practice so far this week, so things are trending in the right direction for him.
CB Tre’Davious White
Arguably the NFL’s best cornerback faces off against arguably the NFL’s best wide receiver this week, as White will most likely shadow DeAndre Hopkins for most of the contest. Hopkins caught two passes for 27 yards and a touchdown when White was covering him last year, and he finished that October game with five catches for 63 yards and that lone touchdown. White has not allowed a touchdown thus far in 2019. Extending that streak at least one more game would be tremendous.