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Power ranking the Buffalo Bills’ potential first-round playoff opponents

Which team do we want to see, and which teams do we want to avoid?

Buffalo Bills v Baltimore Ravens Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

The Buffalo Bills are guaranteed a home playoff game for the first time since 1996, and they’re also guaranteed to be the No. 2 or 3 seed for the first time since 1995, when they were the third seed of three AFC division winners. That year, they hosted the Miami Dolphins in the Wild Card round, winning 37-22 before losing to the AFC Champion Pittsburgh Steelers the following week.

When the Gregorian calendar hits 2021, the Bills will have the chance to host Miami again on Wild Card Weekend, though it would be in a scenario more comparable to the 1992 Bills who played the Houston Oilers on consecutive weekends. We all know how that turned out for the Bills, as the team turned a 35-3 deficit into a 41-38 overtime victory for the largest comeback in NFL history in a truly wild Wild Card playoff game.

As the “rest starters vs. play them” debate has raged in our comment sections and our editorial Slack channel, we’ve all discussed which teams we’d rather see Buffalo play in the playoffs. Our own Nick Bat ran the numbers and came up with a comprehensive guide to the probabilities regarding what team Buffalo will face in that opening game. While that “labor of love” is a hard look at the teams Buffalo will probably face, this discussion will forgo the data and go straight to heart with one essential question: If given the choice, which team would you rather see Buffalo play in the playoffs?

The Bills have five possible opponents for their opening-round playoff game. Depending on who wins the AFC South, they could play either the Tennessee Titans or the Indianapolis Colts. They could have the aforementioned rematch with Miami, as well. Lastly, Buffalo could match up with their Lake Erie brethren, the Cleveland Browns, or last year’s AFC North Division winner in the Baltimore Ravens.

A few notes before we break into the rankings: this list is entirely subjective. If you want the data, check Nick’s piece, because he does a better job with the numbers than I could ever hope to do. I’m considering the matchup, what the opponents’ strengths and weaknesses are, and how those two things relate to what Buffalo does well. That’s it. I know that there’s a greater likelihood that Buffalo plays a particular team over all others, but we’re playing “would you rather” here.

Just one more thing—this isn’t a way of sharing my Bills-fan phobias of success, either. Buffalo is a legit top-three team at worst this year. I fully expect the Bills to win against any team they play in that first game. If I could pick, though, I’d want the team that Buffalo matches up with best over the one that they match up with worst.

The list runs in reverse order—who I don’t want to see all the way to the team I’d like to see. Alright, on to the list.

5. Baltimore Ravens

Likelihood of playing entering Week 17: 37.5 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills WIN: 25 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills LOSE: 50 percent

The reigning NFL MVP in Lamar Jackson. A top-ten scoring offense and a top-five scoring defense. A power running game that leads the league in attempts (501), yards (2,667), and yards per carry (5.3). No thanks. Sure, the game plan sounds simple on paper—”just keep Jackson in the pocket and make him throw it outside the numbers!”—but if it were that easy to do it, then Jackson wouldn’t have a 23:8 touchdown to interception ratio this year to go with a 64.8 percent completion rate and 2,644 yards through the air in addition to 938 rushing yards on 148 attempts. Baltimore has been just as good as the Bills in limiting explosive plays, as the Ravens are tied for third in the league in fewest 20-yard pass plays allowed (37, one less than Buffalo). I was in the “rest our starters” camp, but if a win prevents the Bills from seeing Baltimore in the first round, then let the boys play until the outcome is no longer in doubt.

4. Tennessee Titans

Likelihood of playing entering Week 17: 9.38 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills WIN: 6.25 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills LOSE: 12.5 percent

The Titans clobbered the Bills in Week 5, handing Buffalo their first loss of the season in a 42-16 drubbing down in Nashville. That’s not the reason I don’t want to see the Titans, since the Bills are a far better team on the defensive side than they were early in the season (also, that score was a bit fluky, as Buffalo committed three turnovers and allowed four touchdown drives of less than 30 yards in the game). It all comes down to the style of play, which has the Titans relying on behemoth running back Derrick Henry to plow through the middle of the defense. Buffalo held Henry to 57 yards on 19 carries in October, but he scored two touchdowns, as well. The Titans made a run to the conference championship last year, and their hard-nosed style and 2020 success showed that it was no fluke. Ryan Tannehill has developed into a downright scary passer, and Henry’s star overshadows the fact that Tannehill has thrown for 54 touchdowns and 12 interceptions since taking over as the starting quarterback in Week 7 of the 2019 season. The positive in this matchup is that Tennessee’s defense is not good, and their pass defense is abysmal. Tennessee ranks 23rd in points against and 29th in yards allowed.

3. Cleveland Browns

Likelihood of playing entering Week 17: 25 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills WIN: 25 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills LOSE: 25 percent

I’m no math whiz, but any way you slice it, the Bills have a one-in-four chance at playing Cleveland on Wild Card Weekend. That would be the second time these franchises matched up in a playoff game, as the 1989 Bills dropped (literally and figuratively thanks to Ronnie Harmon) a 34-30 heartbreaker before Cleveland lost to John Elway and the Denver Broncos the following week in the AFC Championship game. This year’s Browns feature the best one-two combination of running backs in the league, as the duo of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt has combined for 2,213 scrimmage yards and 22 touchdowns. What makes this a better matchup than the prior two squads is Cleveland’s middle-of-the-road passing attack and below-average defense. The Browns aren’t a pushover, but they aren’t in the same tier as the Ravens, and the Titans boast a much more balanced and dynamic offense overall.

2. Miami Dolphins

Likelihood of playing entering Week 17: 18.75 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills WIN: 37.5 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills LOSE: 0 percent

It’s hard to beat one team twice in a season. It’s really hard to beat the same team thrice in a season. However, when looking at the matchups, this is one that feels like a good one for the Bills. Josh Allen is magic against the Dolphins over his career, as he has thrown 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions in five games against Miami. Entering this weekend, the Bills are 4-1 in those contests. The Dolphins boast the top scoring defense in the NFL, as they’ve allowed a paltry 18.8 points per game this season. They’ve allowed just three teams to score 30 points on them: the Kansas City Chiefs, the Arizona Cardinals, and the Buffalo Bills. Miami is just 20th in yards allowed, suggesting a “bend but don’t break” formula that is exploited by converting red zone chances. Buffalo is 16th in the league in that metric, scoring touchdowns on 60 percent of their red zone opportunities. Miami would be starting a quarterback making his playoff debut whether they went with rookie Tua Tagovailoa or old friend Ryan Fitzpatrick—another plus in Buffalo’s favor. While the combination of Myles Gaskin and Mike Gesicki is a problem for Buffalo, as they sometimes struggle to cover tight ends and running backs, that seems to be a weakness they’ve overcome as Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds have regained their health. This is a plus matchup.

1. Indianapolis Colts

Likelihood of playing entering Week 17: 9.38 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills WIN: 6.25 percent
Likelihood of playing if Bills LOSE: 12.5 percent

The Bills’ chances of gaining what I view as the most favorable matchup on Wild Card Weekend nearly doubles with a loss. What makes this matchup so good is that Indianapolis reminds me a lot of the Pittsburgh Steelers—a veteran quarterback looking for one last shot at glory, a receiving corps full of guys who are good-not-great types, and an inconsistent running game—without the stellar defense that Pittsburgh has. Indianapolis certainly has a strong defense, as they’re 12th in points allowed and eighth in yards, but the Steelers are ranked No. 2 in both categories. If the Bills were to stay hot on offense, forcing the Colts into a pass-heavy script, it would not go well for Indianapolis. If the Bills could hand-pick their opponent, I think they’d want Indianapolis, but the math isn’t favorable for that matchup to occur.

What do you think, folks? How would you rank the Bills’ possible opponents entering the playoffs? Discuss in the comments below.