The Buffalo Bills host the Indianapolis Colts in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs this weekend. The Bills are the first No. 2 seed to have to play on Wild Card weekend since the 1982-1983 season, which was shortened to nine games thanks to a players’ strike. That postseason tournament saw eight teams per conference qualify.
With the expanded playoff format this year, the Colts are the seventh seed, hence the matchup against the Bills. While they might be the lowest seed in the tournament, they are an 11-win team with a probable Hall of Fame quarterback, an exciting rookie running back, and a top-ten scoring offense and defense. This team is not a pushover by any means.
With that in mind, the Bills will need solid efforts from their top players. Who are we watching this week? I’m glad you asked.
QB Josh Allen
Duh. Buffalo’s quarterback has had an MVP-caliber season, and he’ll be the biggest key to success on Saturday afternoon. After torching the Miami Dolphins’ top-ranked defense for 224 yards and three touchdowns in just the first half during Buffalo’s blowout victory in the regular-season finale, Allen will need to continue his streak of incredible play to move the Bills to the next round of the playoffs. The Colts are the No. 10 defense in points allowed and the No. 2 defense against the run, but they are just No. 20 against the pass this year. Indianapolis allowed a 300-yard passer in six of their games this year, and Allen topped that mark eight times. Indy is without starting cornerback Rock Ya-Sin, who is out with a concussion this week. That will leave Xavier Rhodes, T.J. Carrie, and Kenny Moore II to handle Stefon Diggs, John Brown, Gabriel Davis, and potentially Cole Beasley, who was able to log a limited practice on Thursday. If Allen can keep his adrenaline under control in the early going, he could put the Bills up big enough where the Colts’ rushing attack will be rendered moot.
WR John Brown
I’m going with an obvious pick in Allen, so I’ll leave Diggs off this list, as we know that the NFL’s leading receiver in terms of both receptions and yards is going to be targeted early and often. With Brown back in the mix, though, it adds another level for the Colts to defend—both literally and figuratively. Brown isn’t merely a “9” route guy, but he has the speed to take the proverbial top off of the Colts’ zone defense. If they sit two safeties back to prevent against the big play, that’s going to leave a ton of space for Diggs and company to operate. If they come up to disrupt Buffalo’s crossing routes? Well, then Smoke just might burn them. Brown returned last week from an ankle injury, and he had a nice game, catching four passes for 72 yards and a touchdown. Brown should see plenty of single coverage this week, leaving him plenty of room to make big plays.
G Ike Boettger
In Buffalo’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, Boettger was abused in the first half by defensive lineman Cameron Heyward, who absolutely took over the game. Buffalo adjusted, but it showed an area of weakness along an otherwise stellar offensive line. This week, the AFC’s Defensive Player of the Month for December lines up at defensive tackle. DeForest Buckner poses the same kind of challenge that Heyward did. Boettger has held up fairly well since entering the starting lineup for good in Week 13, but this is going to be a huge challenge for him this week. Buckner is questionable with an ankle injury, so his status will be worth monitoring prior to kickoff.
LB Matt Milano
The Colts’ top receiver in terms of targets and yards is T.Y. Hilton (more on that below), but the team’s top receiver in terms of receptions is running back Nyheim Hines. Philip Rivers loves throwing to his running backs, and Buffalo has struggled at times to cover running backs this season. The common denominator, of course, is that most of those struggles came with Milano out of the lineup. After missing time due to hamstring and pectoral injuries this year, the Bills need Milano to play at a high level on Saturday, as he’ll be the top coverage option for Indianapolis’ short-area targets. Milano had 13 tackles, a sack, a quarterback hit, and a tackle-for-loss over Buffalo’s final two regular-season games, and he’s looked good since returning from injury. He’s a huge x-factor this weekend.
CB Levi Wallace
More so than Tre’Davious White, it’s Wallace who needs to step up in his first career playoff game (he missed last season’s Wild Card loss after injuring his ankle in the regular-season finale). Whether Wallace is trusted to go deep with Hilton or stick with the bigger, stronger Michael Pittman Jr. at the intermediate level, the Colts are probably going to throw at him far more than they will at White. Wallace made some big strides this year, as he allowed just 57 percent of the passes thrown his way to be completed. The downside is that he’s surrendered more big plays this year, as he has allowed an average of 13.8 yards per completion when he’s the closest defender. Buffalo will probably trust Wallace to be by himself early, and if he can hold his own, then Buffalo should be able to shut down the Colts’ passing attack.