2020 NFL wild card preview: Colts vs Bills

We have made it to the NFL playoffs after completing all 256 regular season games without a single cancellation. The postseason will look different for the first time since the division realignment in 2002 as 14 teams made it to the playoffs instead of the usual 12.

To kick off the wild card round, the 11-5 Indianapolis Colts will travel to Buffalo to take on the 13-3 Bills on Saturday in front of 6,700 fans. The last time the Colts faced the Bills in Buffalo was in 2017, a blizzard-game that saw former Bills running back LeSean McCoy run for a game-winning 21-yard touchdown in overtime to give Buffalo the 13-7 victory. This will be the first time ever the two teams will meet in the postseason.

The Colts return to the playoffs for the first time since 2018, former quarterback Andrew Luck’s last season in the NFL. In those playoffs, the Colts went to Houston and beat the Texans 21-7 in the wild card round before losing 31-13 at Kansas City a week later. The Colts finished the regular season 11-5, but needed a 28-14 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars and a Miami Dolphins 56-26 loss at Buffalo in Week 17 to claim the final wild card spot.

The QB this time around is 39-year-old Philip Rivers, who makes his 12th career postseason start on Saturday. He went 5-6 in the playoffs with the Chargers before joining the Colts on a one-year deal this offseason. He was serviceable in the regular season with 4,169 yards and 24 touchdowns to only 11 interceptions. Rivers will have multiple reliable options to throw to as their top-four pass-catchers caught at least 40 passes and gained 450 yards: receivers Michael Pittman Jr., T.Y. Hilton and Zach Pascal along with running back Nyheim Hines.

However, the key for the offense down the stretch has been rookie running back Jonathan Taylor. Taylor gained 97.6 yards per game in their last five games, including breaking Edgerrin James’ franchise record of rushing yards in a single game in their season finale against the Jaguars with 253 yards rushing. The Colts’ offensive line has been stout, allowing only 21 sacks this season, which is tied with the Green Bay Packers for the second fewest.

Defensively, the Colts bolster the second-best rushing defense and the eighth-ranked total defense. Main offseason acquisition DeForest Buckner has given the Colts one of the league’s best defensive lines. However, their Achilles heel has been their pass defense, ranking 20th. This was highlighted in their 28-24 loss at Pittsburgh in Week 16, allowing the Steelers to rally from a 24-7 third quarter as Steelers’ QB Ben Roethlisberger threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns. This is a concern as the Bills are ranked third in passing offense.

The Bills went 13-3, their best record since 1991. However, due to their early-season 26-17 loss against the Kansas City Chiefs, the Bills had to settle for the two seed, which now forces them to play on wild card weekend. They return to the playoffs after suffering a heartbreaking loss in the wild card last year, losing 22-19 to the Texans in overtime after leading 16-0 in the third quarter.

If there was an award for Most Improved Player in the NFL, like there is in the NBA, Bills’ QB Josh Allen would assuredly win it as he earned himself MVP consideration with his season. He threw 4.544 yards compared to 3,089 in 2019, improved from 20 to 37 passing touchdown passes, and upped his completion percentage from 58.8 to 69.2%. He has become the first long-term answer at QB for the team since the days of Jim Kelly in the 1990s. However, he has gotten major help in main offseason acquisition in wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who led the NFL in receiving yards with 1,535. Diggs has provided the deep threat this offense needed to become one of the league’s best. Slot receiver Cole Beasley has stepped up with 82 receptions, 967 yards and four touchdowns to give the Bills a dependable underneath option. However, the running game has been lacking at times this season, ranking 20th.

Defensively, the Bills took a step back from last season, dropping from third and fourth in total and pass defense to 13th and 14th this season. They also rank in the bottom half of the league in rushing defense. However, the Bills are tied for third for most takeaways in the NFL. While their offense has been much better in 2020 than in 2019, the defense’s regression is a concern for their Super Bowl aspirations.

Since “The Hail Murray” on Nov. 15, the Bills have not lost a single game, winning all six games by at least 10 points. They have been playing their best football at the right time, making them one of the favorites to win the Super Bowl. For the Colts to pull off the upset, Taylor must have an effective game to keep the ball away from the Bills, and the defense must disrupt the timing of Allen with his receivers. While Taylor will lead long scoring drives, I don’t see the Colts’ defense slowing down a juggernaut Bills’ offense. The Colts will keep it close for a half, but inevitably, the Bills will pull away in the third quarter to win their first playoff game since 1995. The Bills will host another playoff game next week.

Prediction: Colts 20 – Bills 34

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