The Buffalo Bills host the Baltimore Ravens this Saturday in the Divisional Round of the NFL Playoffs. It’s been 27 years since the Bills last hosted a game after Wild Card Weekend, with the Bills defeating the then-Los Angeles Raiders 29-23 at Rich Stadium on January 15, 1994.
The Bills earned their spot this season by finishing with a 13-3 record, then defeating the Indianapolis Colts 27-24 in the Super Wild Card Round. The Ravens finished the regular season at 11-5, then went on the road to beat the AFC South Division champion Tennessee Titans 20-13 last weekend.
Baltimore boasts the league’s best rushing attack and a top-ten defense in terms of both yards and points against. The Bills boast the league’s second-best offense in both of those categories, along with a defense that had started to round into form before giving up more yards and points than they had in over a month (well, in games where their starters actually played the whole way, at least).
If the Bills are going to advance to their first AFC Championship game since 1994’s duel between Jim Kelly and Joe Montana, they’ll need big performances from their top players. Here are our five players to watch this week.
QB Josh Allen
Defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale was able to confuse and harass Allen in last season’s matchup, as Allen completed just 17-of-39 passes for 146 yards and one touchdown. Allen was also sacked six times, losing 41 yards and a fumble in the process. Josh Allen has grown significantly since that game last year, and it’s hard to believe that it was just 13 months ago. The Bills’ offensive line has been sound in pass protection this season, as Allen has only been sacked 26 times after taking 38 sacks last year. Part of that is due to Allen’s ability to read blitzes and throw the ball to his hot receivers early. He’ll need to trust those reads on Saturday night, as the Ravens will almost certainly play plenty of tight man and bring some pressure to see if they can knock Allen off rhythm early and often. Look for some “Gold Rip” in the early going to stress the Ravens’ edges when they bring pressure, as well as some misdirection and pre-snap eye candy to make those front-seven players hesitate to commit to the full-on rush. With a group that consists of studs like Matthew Judon, Yannick Ngakoue, Calais Campbell and more, identifying protections and finding open targets quickly will be of the utmost importance. Allen has shown himself to be up to the challenge against other top-ten defenses this season. He’ll need to do it one more time on Saturday night.
RB Devin Singletary
With backfield mate Zack Moss done for the rest of the postseason, Singletary is in line to see more action, and perhaps more touches, this Saturday than he has in months. When Moss was out with a toe injury earlier in the season, Singletary played 89 percent, 89 percent, and 63 percent of the offensive snaps, respectively, in wins over the Los Angeles Rams and Las Vegas Raiders, and then a loss against the Tennessee Titans. Singletary carried 42 times for 152 yards and a touchdown, adding ten catches for 79 yards on 12 targets. Those numbers aren’t terribly impressive overall, but I imagine that he’ll see the majority of the snaps regardless of whether head coach Sean McDermott decides to roll with veteran T.J. Yeldon or rookie Antonio Williams as the backup this week. My money is on the veteran Yeldon being the guy, as he adds an element as a receiver that even Singletary, who caught 38 passes for 269 yards this season, can’t match. Still, I expect the team to try and give Singletary the ball on screens and flat routes early, trying to capitalize on Baltimore’s aggressive nature by giving the ball to a shifty playmaker in space. If Singletary has one of those games where he has 90 yards on 15 total touches, it will open Buffalo’s offense up to do all the things that they’ve been able to do while gashing opponents all year long.
WR Stefon Diggs
Last week, we put John Brown in the spotlight, who responded by going on the side of a milk carton while turning in a four-target, zero-catch effort. This week, let’s stick with the obvious: Baltimore knows that they have to limit what Diggs does in order to be successful. Last year, they took Brown out of the equation by consistently blitzing Allen from Brown’s side. That flushed Allen away from the throw, limiting his effectiveness. Do they try the same strategy with Diggs this week? Baltimore’s secondary is excellent, with Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey forming one of the league’s best 1-2 combos (and Jimmy Smith is no slouch as the third wheel, either), but A.J. Brown was able to haul in six catches for 83 yards and a touchdown last week. Brown feels like a “big” receiver, but he’s just six feet tall—the same height as Diggs—though Brown weighs in at 226 lbs compared to Diggs at 191. The point is that the Bills can find success against this secondary, and Diggs is going to need to be the guy he’s been all year. This is exactly the kind of game that the Bills acquired Diggs to play in, and it should be a great matchup to watch.
EDGE Mario Addison
I very nearly copped out and did the old “insert edge player here” thing, because it’s the truth—Buffalo’s edge rushers will be tasked with containing superstar quarterback Lamar Jackson—but Addison is the one I’ll really be watching. Time and again, we’ve seen teams breaks some big gainers off RPOs or similar plays because Addison dives inside rather than maintaining the edge. That puts extra stress on the players behind him like Matt Milano, A.J. Klein, Taron Johnson, etc., to come up and make a tackle. Prediction: veteran Trent Murphy will be active on Saturday in place of Darryl Johnson Jr. (who is on the injury report with a “kenn” injury...or a knee), and he’ll see a healthy number of snaps to play contain in place of Addison.
LB Tremaine Edmunds
He’ll be tasked with the most difficult job of all on Saturday, as he’s likely to shadow Lamar Jackson and be responsible for tight end Mark Andrews in zone coverage over the middle. Edmunds is going to need to do something contradictory—he’s going to have be patient in his reads, but he will have to flow aggressively towards the ball in order to shut down Baltimore’s outstanding rushing attack. Maybe “shut down” is the wrong term—Baltimore is going to “get theirs” on the ground, as they averaged 192 yards per game on the ground this year in the regular season, and they totaled 236 yards rushing against Tennessee. The key is limiting those explosive plays and keeping the Ravens in 3rd-and-long situations. Edmunds is a vital player in Buffalo’s defense, and his athleticism is going to be put to the test this weekend. He appeared on the injury report with a hamstring issue this week—hopefully, it isn’t serious.