Colts at Bills: How we see it

Indy Blitz

Indianapolis Colts running back Jonathan Taylor (28) runs to the outside during an NFL football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Zach Bolinger)

INDIANAPOLIS – Areas of interest in the Indianapolis Colts’ first-round AFC wild-card meeting with the Buffalo Bills Saturday at Bills Stadium:

  • Kickoff: 1:05 p.m.
  • Broadcast: CBS4.
  • History lesson: It isn’t as if the Colts are heading into uncharted waters. They were last in the playoffs in 2018. But it’s just their second appearance in the last six seasons. We’re not predicting anything (that’s for later), but it’s worth pointing out they normally aren’t satisfied just showing up. They’ve won a first-round game in each of their last three trips – 2018 at Houston, ’14 against Cincinnati and ’13 against Kansas City.

Buffalo returns to the playoffs for a second straight season and third time in four years. But postseason success has eluded the Bills. They’re hosting a playoff game for the first time since 1996 (a 30-27 loss to Jacksonville) and looking for their first playoff win since a 37-22 nod over Miami in ’95 when Jim Kelly outdueled Dan Marino.

For those wondering, Frank Reich no longer called Buffalo home. His last season with the Bills was ’94.

  • Play 60: It’s been a season-long issue, so it’s hard to imagine things suddenly changing. But it’s imperative the Colts put together a 60-minute game, and not surge for 30 or 45 minutes, then hit a serious lull. That worked at times in an 11-5 season, but was incredibly costly on several occasions, most notably at Pittsburgh. It almost them a playoff spot in the closer against Jacksonville.

A quick start is needed offensively to establish whatever blueprint Frank Reich and Nick Sirianni have devised. If that’s lean heavily on Jonathan Taylor and the run game, that’s only possible if the score allows. The easiest path to a quick exit is falling into an early hold and relying solely on Philip Rivers’ 39-year old right arm. He’s one of the NFL’s most prolific passers, but he’s also 15-46 (.246) when he’s attempted at least 40 passes. That ranks 54th among all-time qualifying QB1s.

Josh Allen’s sample size is much smaller – 45 career games to Rivers’ 255 – but he’s 5-5 when throwing at least 40 passes, and has won his last when airing it out. But it’s also worth pointing out Allen’s first career playoff start last season at Houston saw him attempt 46 passes in a 22-19 loss to the Texans.

The Bills will have no problem if this turns into a throw-fest. The Colts need to avoid that at all costs. They’re more than capable of mixing an aggressive pass game with a relentless run game. Indy had the lowest three-and-out percentage this season (11.7%) and was tied with the Bills and Rams for the 2nd-most 10-play drives (40).

The same holds true for the defense. The Bills are quick starters. They’ve outscored the opposition 90-49 in the first quarter and 265-146 in the first half. Coordinator Matt Eberflus’ defense won’t be given time to settle in and settle down.

A major challenge for the defense is keeping track of Allen. He possesses a monster arm, but he’s also Buffalo’s third-leading rusher (421 yards, eight rushing TDs). Allen is gettable (26 sacks), and its important for DeForest Buckner, Justin Houston, Denico Autry and the rest of the pass-rush package to be aggressive in their pursuit without losing containment.

Easier said than done.

  • Ride the rookie: We’ve beaten this drum hard the last month and a half. Jonathan Taylor has defied the rookie norm and gotten stronger as the season has unfolded. He’s the NFL’s second-leading rusher over the final seven games of the season with 741 yards, and that’s with Taylor missing one game while on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Only Derrick Henry piled up more (1,081).

Taylor undoubtedly will have a bull’s-eye on his back on the heels of his franchise-record 253 yards against the Jaguars, but Rivers still needs to feed him the football. We’re not asking for another 30-carry game (OK, maybe we are), but Indy must remain committed to its run game, and that probably includes keeping Nyheim Hines involved.

The stat that jumps out: in their three losses to Tennessee, Kansas City and Arizona, the Bills allowed 200.3 rush yards per game and 5.2 yards per attempt.

The Colts have the manpower to at least reasonably control the line of scrimmage. Run, and allow Rivers to be a complementary QB.

  • Limit the chunks: As we’ve said this week, Allen and Stefon Diggs are going to get theirs. They’re that good. The sign of a great pitch-and-catch tandem is everyone knows what’s coming, but unable to do anything about it. Diggs led the NFL with 166 targets, and became the first Bill to lead the league in receptions (127) and yards (1,535).

Allen was 5th in the league with 37 TDs and 4th with 62 completions of at least 20 yards. Diggs had 20 receptions of at least 20 yards, tied for 5th.

The Colts’ pass defense was the NFL’s best over the first half of the season, but tailed off dramatically. It allowed 53 completions of at least 20 yards, 10th-most. In the last four games, opponents have smacked the defense for TD passes of 47, 21, 38, 39 and 25 yards. That’s counter to everything Eberflus’ defense is about.

The secondary will be at less than full strength. Rock Ya-Sin, who’s had an inconsistent second season, is out with a concussion.

  • Special teams: Might an explosive play – or blunder – on special teams be the tipping point? Buffalo’s Andre Roberts is second-team All-Pro after leading the league in kick returns (30.0). Isaiah McKenzie returned a punt 84 yards for a TD against Miami.

Clearly, the Colts’ coverage units have a tough day ahead. That includes All-Pro George Odom.

The kickers? Colts rookie Rodrigo Blankenship converted 32-of-37 and set a rookie record with 139 points. But he was 2-for-4 against Jacksonville, hitting 22- and 24-yarders, but leaving a 56-yarder short and glancing a 49-yard attempt off the right upright. Buffalo rookie Tyler Bass converted 28-of-34 field goal attempts and 57-of-59 PATs.

  • And the winner is: Bills 31, Colts 20. There is an avenue to beating the Bills, but we’re not confident the Colts have the wherewithal to pull off the upset. This has the feel of a game where they do so much right for so long, then hit a bad batch – offensively, defensively, whatever – they’re unable to overcome.

Just a hunch.

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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