The Buffalo Bills take on the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams in the kickoff game for the 2022 NFL season. Buffalo enters the season as the betting favorite not only to represent the AFC in Super Bowl LVII, but to win the whole thing for the first time in franchise history. Meanwhile, the Rams come in tied with the Kansas City Chiefs at the third-best odds to win their second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.
After the banner is raised and the coin toss commences, the Bills and the Rams will have 60 game minutes to start their season off on the right foot. During those 60 minutes, each team has plenty of superstars who we’ll be watching.
Which Bills are the keys to victory Thursday night? Here are our five players to watch this week.
QB Josh Allen
Buffalo’s top dog is a legitimate MVP candidate, and while his supporting cast looks a bit different this year, it’s not necessarily a downgrade from last year’s personnel grouping. Buffalo lost veteran wideouts Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders, both of whom remain unsigned. Gabe Davis is expected to step into a larger role entering his third season, and veteran Jamison Crowder replaces Beasley on the roster. Allen still has Stefon Diggs, Isaiah McKenzie, and Dawson Knox, as well as running back Devin Singletary. The team also added some exciting rookies (more on those players below) for new offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey. Allen played just one series in the preseason, completing all three of his passes for a total of 45 yards and a touchdown to Davis. Starting the year off in the national spotlight against the defending Super Bowl champs is a huge moment, and Allen has risen to the occasion in those big primetime games over the last few seasons. In nine “late” (read: Primetime) games in his career, Allen has completed 66.5% of his passes for 2,408 yards, 24 passing touchdowns, seven interceptions, a 105.3 quarterback rating, 287 rushing yards, and two rushing touchdowns. Allen is a Primetime player, but he faces a stiff test in an Aaron Donald-led Los Angeles defense. If the Bills can keep Allen clean, he’ll be in good shape.
RB James Cook
One of the rookies I’m most interested to see this week is Cook, the change-of-pace back who figures to be the complement to Devin Singletary this year. A bigger question, perhaps, is whether the Bills will activate Zack Moss for goal line work or leave him as a healthy scratch heading into the game. Regardless, expect the Bills to use Cook to exploit linebackers in coverage both from the backfield and the slot, as the Georgia product is an adept route runner from all over the field. Cook gives Allen another dynamic weapon in the passing game, and he also gives the team a run-after-catch weapon—something they sorely missed in 2021. How many touches he’ll have is anyone’s guess, but I’m going to go with ten combined carries and targets for Cook in his NFL debut.
WR Khalil Shakir
This one’s a little out there, but I can explain. We know what Stefon Diggs can do. Gabe Davis is the man stepping into a larger role, but if his breakout performance in last year’s AFC Divisional Round playoff contest is any indication—ten targets, eight receptions, 201 yards, four touchdowns—he’s ready. Isaiah McKenzie is listed as the starting slot receiver, but he missed practice time last week before returning on Sunday, and while he told Thad Brown that he’s “good to go” this week, any setback could change his availability. After an underwhelming preseason from Jamison Crowder, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Shakir step into some big reps in his regular-season debut if McKenzie is limited in any way. He’s already the top punt returner on the team, and after a huge preseason where he led the team in receiving yards (152) and caught all eight of his targets, the fifth-round rookie is someone I want to see sooner rather than later. Crowder is the safe and steady veteran, but if the Bills want someone who can be as shifty and dynamic as McKenzie against a man-to-man defense, Shakir is the guy who can step in to make some big plays. He’s my dark horse candidate to have a big game on Thursday night.
EDGE Von Miller
The veteran didn’t see one single snap in the preseason, so Thursday night will be the first chance we’ll have to watch him in a Bills uniform. He’s instantly the team’s best pass rusher, and his effect on some of the younger guys has already been shown through various videos and interviews this summer. How many snaps will he play? Will he be able to take down his former teammate, Matthew Stafford, for his first sack as a Buffalo Bill? Will his presence allow Buffalo’s other pass rushers, like Greg Rousseau, A.J. Epenesa, Ed Oliver, and Boogie Basham, to end up with sacks of their own? How the Rams choose to account for their former teammate is going to be a huge storyline on Thursday. Furthermore, how teams account for Miller going forward is going to be one of the most important things to watch for Buffalo’s defense all season.
CB Taron Johnson
Johnson has the most difficult task of anyone on Buffalo’s defense, in my opinion. While most teams employ a top receiver who works outside of the hashes, Los Angeles has Cooper Kupp, who does his best work out of the slot. Sure, the Bills could choose to have Kaiir Elam follow Kupp, but that would be a daunting task for a rookie making his first career start. Elam and Dane Jackson will have to contend with Allen Robinson II and Van Jefferson on the outside, while Johnson will end up in the slot with Kupp. Johnson has been one of the league’s top slot corners since entering the league as a fourth-round pick out of Weber State in 2018, and he had a stellar year last season. Johnson allowed just 55.1% of the passes thrown his way to be completed, and his 75.5 QB rating against was his best output since his rookie season. The Bills will certainly give him some help in the form of bracket coverages and zone robbers, but Johnson’s ability to stick with the reigning Super Bowl MVP is going to determine a lot of Buffalo’s defensive success. Kupp isn’t just a great slot receiver—he’s one of the league’s best wideouts, period. Stopping him entirely probably isn’t going to happen, but limiting him and forcing him to work for every solitary inch of breathing room would go a long way towards moving Buffalo to 1-0 on the season.