INDIANAPOLIS – For just the second time in the 2020 NFL season, the Colts enter a game as an underdog.
Saturday’s Wild Card matchup against the Bills has the Colts as around a touchdown underdog.
Buffalo is 13-3 on the season, having won 9 of their last 10 games. The Bills have an explosive offense under creative director Brian Daboll, star quarterback Josh Allen and top wideout Stefon Diggs. Defensively, the Bills have All-Pro cornerback Tre’Davious White, but are not as dominant over there as they are on offense.
So, what is the blueprint to beating the Bills?
Attack The Bills Run Defense, Red Zone: If there are two areas to the Bills defense that one might call a ‘weakness’ it would be its ability to stop the run and tighten up in the red zone.
And that’s so vital to the Colts trying to pull off this upset.
Buffalo isn’t an ‘elite’ defense in really any area, ranking mostly around the league average or slightly above that, in most categories.
The two poorest areas for the unit though is in rushing yards allowed per carry (26th in the league, 4.62 YPC) and red zone defense (28th, 65.5 percent conversions allowed).
If the Colts want a realistic chance on Saturday, they must expose both of those areas even further.
That starts with a heavy dose of Jonathan Taylor. But it can’t just be feeding Taylor. The Colts must avoid three-and-outs (which they did better than anyone in the NFL this year), sustain those drives and then cash in when reaching the red zone.
Again, this is the recipe that makes so much sense on paper given what the Colts would like to do with their own strengths, attacking some weaknesses in Buffalo and then also limiting the Bills’ potent offensive attack.
One thing to note on the Bills run defense, while the unit didn’t face a lot of elite runners this year, the group did hold Derrick Henry to a season-low 57 yards and 3.2 yards per carry.
Rush Integrity: Offensively, the Bills offer a lot of pre-snap deception. Recognition from the defense pre-snap is critical.
Once the ball is snapped, if you defend that initial X and O, the play is just getting started.
The Bills can create so much once a play breaks down.
Not only must the Colts be sound in their rush integrity against the athletic Josh Allen (who stands 6-5 and 237, but can certainly move), they have to stay engaged at the back end.
Plastering will be a must and Colts players in coverage should know that howitzer of Allen can do plenty of damage in scrambling to throw, and not just run.
Allen took a massive jump in his accuracy this season (58 percent to 69 percent), yet the Bills offense remains one of the most explosive in chunk plays.
In 2020, the Colts have struggled in allowing more athletic quarterbacks to do damage outside of the confines of the pocket.
If the Bills are able to make some plays off-script, it would be especially damaging to a defense that has struggled rushing and covering to close out the season. One possible advantage the Colts might have is Allen has been better than any other QB this season against man coverage. Well, the Colts don’t play a lot of man. Will their focus on zone looks help them in scramble situations?
Matchup wise, how the Colts plan for Stefon Diggs (the NFL’s leading receiver at 127 catches and 1,535 yards) will certainly be something to watch. Xavier Rhodes with a rare shadow? Khari Willis back healthy to help out?
Win The Situations: When you are facing a team that is 2nd in the league in points scored, you have to find ways to steal a possession(s) and/or points.
That means winning 4th down, excelling in the red zone and trying to play from ahead.
One of the most consistent aspects to this Colts season has been their ability to score on opening drives (2nd in the NFL with 66 points on opening possessions).
Doing that again on Saturday would be huge.
Getting that early lead would allow for the Colts to remain on schedule, continue to feature Jonathan Taylor/the run game, plus apply some early pressure to the touchdown favorite.
Ultimately though, situational football is going to be the real critical point. It’s something the Colts offense has not been great in this season. If they can win those third-down and red-zone areas, they should be right there late.
Rivers Key In Specific Moments: For the Colts to go into Buffalo and earn a win on Saturday, they will need a better performance from Philip Rivers then what we’ve seen in the last 6 quarters.
The Colts can’t have Rivers doing a ton of heavy lifting on Saturday though, yet they’ll still need him to take better advantage of the run game success than the offense did last weekend.
Rives will certainly have to deliver some big-time throws and decisions. That’s inevitable. And that could have to involve some other weapons, if the Bills shadow White on T.Y. Hilton and have success with that 1-on-1 matchup.
Ideally though, the Colts would alleviate some of that burden that comes for any QB in the playoffs.
We know Rivers’ playoff resume, and how he’s performed in cold weather—sub 60 percent passer and .313 winning percentage.
If the Colts are forced into obvious passing situations against the Bills, it’s not going to end well for them.
That’s why the Colts must strive to play from ahead and play complementary football from there with Rivers using the run game to aid the pass.