The Bills are back with a home playoff game for the first time in 25 years and they aren't going to waste it, writes Mark Kirwan...
"The offence, guided by QB Josh Allen, has been a juggernaut down the stretch averaging over 38 points per game during that closing streak. "
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Bills stampede into contention
Buffalo trampled all in their path on the way to a first division title since 1995.
Their 13-3 record ended New England's dominance of the AFC East, and the way they did it means a first Lombardi Trophy could trump the franchise's previous best efforts as four-time Super Bowl losers.
The offence, guided by QB Josh Allen, has been a juggernaut down the stretch averaging over 38 points per game during that closing streak.
The 24-year-old was a divisive selection in the 2018 draft but many have been forced to eat their words as doubts about his throwing accuracy have been dispelled emphatically this season.
Lowest % of uncatchable passes thrown from a clean pocket in 2020, per @PFF's ball location charting:? Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) December 29, 2020
Josh Allen (10.9%)
-- Aaron Rodgers (11.2%)
-- Russell Wilson (11.3%)
-- Drew Brees (11.7%)
That's insane, Allen's improvement from an accuracy standpoint is insane.
Some might remember last season's Bills playoff appearance, where Allen gave his team a 13-0 half-time lead over Houston only to fizzle out in the second as the Texans rolled on to play Kansas City in the Divisional round.
It would be a huge shock to see a repeat performance on Saturday though, as he's completing passes at almost 70%, an improvement of over 10 points on last year, with 37 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
He's been helped by the Bills' front office, who traded for Stefon Diggs from Minnesota in the offseason and seen a huge return on the draft capital spent. The former Viking is firmly lodged among top receivers in the league after posting over 100 yards per game this season and eight TDs. Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis, John Brown and Isaiah MacKenzie have also delivered, giving him plenty of targets to aim for - and he's hitting them more often than not.
While having a powerful offence is great, some defence is needed if you're to put a championship run together. Buffalo's D appeared to have lost their edge in the opening weeks of the season, but since their last loss, to Arizona's "Hail Murray" a week before their bye, they've only allowed two opponents score over 20 points, and one of those was Miami last week when the Bills began resting starters with the game won.
If they continue to compete like this on both sides of the ball they'll be tough for any team to stop.
Colts bumpy ride
That includes the Colts.
Their season came down to Week 17 and the return leg of their divisional match-up with the Jaguars, who had stunned them in Week 1.
The intervening weeks saw Jacksonville lose 14 straight games, while Indy recovered to such an extent that, at half-time in Week 16 against the Steelers their 21-7 lead meant they could've leapt to the second seed in the conference if results went their way.
It wasn't to be, as a solitary second-half field goal meant they lost 28-24 in Pittsburgh and were left hoping one of their AFC rivals lost in Week 17 so they could nab a Wildcard playoff berth.
Miami obliged, and Indy righted the wrong of Week 1 by beating the Jags, but it wasn't plain sailing. As has become a trait of this team, the Philip Rivers-led offence scored early then slackened, allowing their unfancied opponents to close to within a touchdown late in the game.
Philip Rivers just scored his 421st passing TD, passing Dan Marino for 5th most all-time pic.twitter.com/zasPXO3Ff0? ProFootballReference (@pfref) January 3, 2021
Rookie rusher Jonathan Taylor stepped up to grab an insurance score in the closing minutes and ease fraying nerves. He has been a revelation in the later months of the season and given the Colts an extra dimension that does give them some hope in the postseason.
If they were just relying on Rivers and his receivers, they'd probably have missed out with injuries and disappointing play seeing Frank Reich's team flatter to deceive as possible AFC frontrunners.
Their defence has been one of the tougher units in the league at times this season, especially along the defensive line with DeForest Buckner blocking rushers snd pressuring QBs, but it'll be tough to make that count against an air attack like Buffalo's.
On paper, the Colts roster looks one of the most balanced in the league, but they've failed to really deliver on their promise.
Meanwhile, Buffalo are walloping teams. They even rested Josh Allen in the second half last week and still posted 56 points against a Miami defence that has been tough this season.
They've been outscoring opponents by almost 20 points on average since mid-November.
When you consider the incidental factors like homefield, western New York winter weather and Indy being a dome team, it's hard to look past the Bills by a score or more. If the 6.5 handicap holds, I'd take the home team at 10/11.
The Over on the Total Points line of 51 should be a sold proposition here.
The Bills' scoring could see them account for 40 on their own, while Indy have been consistent if lacking explosive play this season. They'll also be pushed along by Buffalo, who will post points for sure.
For scoring bets, I'd lean towards Jonathan Taylor over Stefon Diggs in the first TD market at 7/1. Indy have generally started fast this season and Taylor is their biggest threat, especially early when game script should see him feature.
For an anytime interest, Buffalo D/ST appeals at 7/2. This could be Phillip Rivers' final game, and, great player though he has been, he has earned a reputation for throwing interceptions late in games (partly due to the teams he's been on, it has to be said). Sad as it might be, a pick-six finale to the great quarterback's career is not hard to imagine, especially with the Colts likely to be chasing the game late.