The Buffalo Bills are 12-3, and they host the 10-5 Miami Dolphins in the regular-season finale on Sunday. The Bills have clinched the AFC East crown for the first time since 1995. All they have left to play for is seeding, as they will be the No. 2 seed with a win or a loss by the Pittsburgh Steelers, or they’ll be the No. 3 seed with a loss and a Pittsburgh win.
How much will that seeding matter? Well, it depends. There’s no real way to ensure a perfect matchup in the first round of the playoffs regardless of whether Buffalo is seeded second or third, so will the Bills play for the higher seed? Or will they decide that rest is more important? I think the team will go somewhere in the middle, giving their starting group meaningful snaps, but ultimately having those starters give way to reserve players in the second half.
Which players will we watch this week, then? It’s a tough list to compile given head coach Sean McDermott’s noncommittal answers regarding the length of time the starters will play. However, I’ll be interested in some backups this week.
Here are our five players to watch.
QB Matt Barkley
Josh Allen is going to start the game. In fact, I’d put money on the Bills coming out and throwing on every play of the first drive. They’ll want Allen to throw for at least 40 yards and for the Bills to score a touchdown. After that? Well, it’s going to be Barkley time at some point in the afternoon, and I think it’ll come fairly early. The whole thing crumbles without Josh, so playing him in what ultimately isn’t a terribly meaningful game doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Barkley might not enter in the first half like he did last year against the New York Jets, but he’ll enter at some point. I’ll want to see him make some decent throws, perhaps even throwing a touchdown to a 14th different player to set an NFL record.
WR Isaiah McKenzie
Someone is going to have to absorb Cole Beasley’s snaps in the slot, and I bet it’ll be the shifty jet-sweep master for this week. Buffalo will want to put some things on film that will set up their next moves—offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has been a step ahead of the opposition all season—so using McKenzie extensively would show a different look regardless of Beasley’s health or help from a veteran like Kenny Stills. Prop bet: McKenzie will be the Bills’ leading receiver on Sunday.
TE Dawson Knox
You can’t let everyone sit, and the young tight end really needs to take advantage of an opportunity as one of the few starters who is sure to see nearly “normal” reps on Sunday to prove that he can be a top-end target. For every great catch he makes (the fourth-down conversion, the big throw up the seam where he took a huge shot), he seems to make an equally mind-blowing drop (that sure touchdown last week). The coaching staff clearly has faith that Knox is their guy, as they’ve essentially banished Tyler Kroft in the second half of the season. Knox needs to reward the staff for their faith, and a breakout Week 17 performance could give him plenty of confidence and add another layer to an incredibly dangerous offense heading into the postseason.
DE Darryl Johnson Jr.
I am the president of the Darryl Johnson fan club. I love watching this absolute missile wreck returners on special teams. Johnson has also developed a bit as a defensive end, as the raw North Carolina A&T product managed a pressure last week against Cam Newton. I expect that he and A.J. Epenesa will each see an increased workload this week, and I’d love for Johnson to flatten Tua Tagovailoa at some point in the contest.
LB Tyrel Dodson
I imagine that Tremaine Edmunds will see a snap reduction, and Dodson will be the recipient of those snaps. He has seen a reduction in time since returning from a hamstring injury earlier in December, but when Edmunds and Matt Milano were hurt earlier in the year, Dodson performed admirably. He started the first Miami game, a contest where tight end Mike Gesicki had a career day (8 catches, 130 yards, 2 touchdowns). Dodson will need to be better if he’s given the opportunity to play a substantial amount on defense again this week.