The Buffalo Bills enter the 2023 NFL Playoffs and Super Wild Card Weekend as the two seed in the AFC. As such, Buffalo will play host to the seven-seed Pittsburgh Steelers this weekend. The intensity of playoff football is palpable, especially when you’re in Bills country. Bills Mafia have come to enjoy playoff football in recent seasons, thanks to the sustained success the Bills have found in claiming the AFC East division title four years in a row.
Entering the week, the Buffalo Bills opened as 9.5-point favorites over the Pittsburgh Steelers. The line has since moved half a point in favor of the Steelers, with a current over/under set at 33.5 and the moneyline at -470 for Buffalo and +360 for Pittsburgh.
There will be no easy road to victory for either side on Sunday, especially when taking into consideration the weather forecast — with some models predicting a foot or more of lake effect snowfall between Saturday and Monday, temperatures in the low to mid 20s (with a wind chill factor half that or potentially far worse), and sustained winds near 30 mph with gusts up to around 50 mph.
Given predicted weather models, and the highly erratic nature of storms off of Lake Erie, the National Weather Service has officially issued a Weather Storm Watch ahead of Sunday’s game in Orchard Park, NY. The watch is in effect from Saturday afternoon (January 13), through Monday (January 15). Additionally, a High Wind Watch and Lakeshore Flood Watch have also been issued, with both advisories set to expire Saturday evening.
Despite rumors to the contrary, the game remains as scheduled, and where scheduled — but it’s likely fans see a far different sort of football game play out than most have grown accustomed to. There is no bigger topic of conversation leading up to Bills-Steelers than that of the weather. If Buffalo hopes to win this weekend, they have to put the elements to work for them, while doing everything possible to maintain a semblance of balance on offense to keep Pittsburgh guessing, and honest.
There are those who believe this game is setting up just the way the Steelers like it. However, it’s not as though Pittsburgh has more inclement weather than Buffalo. They may present as a hard-nosed, smash-mouth football team that loves to run the ball — but they don’t normally play in elements as extreme as predicted for Sunday. Should piles of snow and a barrage of wind invade Highmark Stadium, it’s not a given that such conditions favor the Steelers any more than the Bills. Buffalo, recall, has found its running mojo this season, and the roster boasts a diverse and talented group of running backs.
What doesn’t play into the Bills’ favor is their concerning injury report. The team has already ruled out wide receiver Gabe Davis and safety Taylor Rapp. Meanwhile, cornerback Rasul Douglas and linebacker Tyrel Dodson are listed as questionable for Sunday. For the Steelers, just one player has been ruled out: superstar edge rusher T.J. Watt. Beyond that, their injury report is as clean as it gets.
Certainly, losing Watt is a massive blow. The dropoff in statistical production behind Watt is canyonlike. For Buffalo, Douglas and Dodson were already on the field to replace starters lost earlier in the season. Rapp may at this point in time only be a reserve safety, but he’s one who finds himself on the field often enough during games — and his physical brand of football will be missed.
Losing Gabe Davis will hurt the offense far more than most fans are willing to admit. Davis has seen an up-and-down 2023 season, no doubt. But what he brings on the whole to the offense could be difficult to replace among the team’s current options. Often this season, we’ve heard how much Davis brings to the team as a blocker, and we saw a perfect example of that in Week 18 when he helped spring wide receiver Khalil Shakir for a gridiron-eating reception.
The Bills have essentially been within the throes of playoff football since Week 14. Coming out of their bye to end the season on a five-game winning streak allowed Buffalo to claim the two seed and their division. Unlike the regular season, there’s no path to next week through a loss. It’s win or go home. The question is if the Bills have it in them to continue winning games, especially when the competition only get more fierce.
Since the NFL Playoffs expanded in 2020 to add one additional team (seven seed) in each conference, not once has a seven seed defeated a two seed — 0-6 and outscored by an average margin of 12.2 points. Despite the dead of winter, it’s seldom enough that an NFL team faces such weather adversity in the playoffs. Due to that, it’s worth considering Sunday’s playoff matchup to be a far more level playing field than typically is the case.
The Steelers have won three games in a row, and have caught a bit of magic behind the play of backup quarterback Mason Rudolph — with a more productive offense to boot. He is not, however, Josh Allen. Rudolph has but 13 NFL starts to his name in four seasons — and he’s thrown just three touchdown passes since taking over the reigns late in 2023. Furthermore, Mason Rudolph has zero playoff experience as a starting quarterback. Still, he’s played smart, mistake-free football and remains a huge reason for the team’s late-season playoff push. Like Allen, Rudolph is a huge specimen at quarterback — a listed 6’5” and 235 pounds.
Yes, you’re right to remember that Pittsburgh’s quarterback had been Kenny Pickett, a former first-round draft pick of theirs. He fell to injury, then out of favor last in the season. Essentially, he never re-gained his starting role once he was injured.
Meanwhile, Josh Allen has plenty of playoff experience, with eight starts in four seasons. In total to this point of his playoff resume, Allen has completed 197-of-309 passes (63.8%) for 2,334 yards, with 17 passing TDs and 4 INTs; adding 63 rushes for 417 yards, with 2 rushing TDs and an alarming 8 fumbles (recovering one).
Fumbles are often difficult to control, and it becomes even more of a challenge when you add snow and unpredictable wind into the mix. Allen in particular must remain cautious with the football. At the same time, interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady shouldn’t shy away from calling deep plays in key moments — no one in today’s game has a cannon like Allen. When footing is poor, it works to the offense’s advantage facing defenders who have to guess and react to the play.
You may recall that the Buffalo Bills were the two seed for last season’s playoffs... and that the game didn’t go well for anyone in Buffalo Bills hues. That game also featured a snowglobe-like atmosphere, and plenty of miscues at all corners of the roster. Those players who remain from last season’s team will have hopefully learned from their season-ending mistakes, ready to make amends with Old Man Winter in what’s certain to be a game featuring the elements.
For those of you who don’t brave the elements on Sunday, Bills-Steelers kicks off at 1 p.m. EST, and will air on CBS and stream on Paramount+ with Jim Nantz and Tony Romo on the call, and Tracy Wolfson from the sideline.