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Keys to the Game: Wild Card playoff match-up between Colts and Bills

Jacksonville Jaguars v Indianapolis Colts Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images

The Indianapolis Colts have made their way back to the playoffs for the first time since 2018 and only the second time since 2014. All it took was an 11-win record and the expansion of the playoffs from six teams to seven in a season marred by a global pandemic. The circumstances and history won’t matter this afternoon.

Arguably no team has been more balanced or complete in stretches than the Colts. The defense has been stifling for parts of most regular-season games and has been opportunistic, scoring points off of turnovers or forcing safeties. In fact, numerous Colts’ wins in 2020 could be credited to huge defensive plays and defensive playmakers have stepped up, none more so than DeForest Buckner on the defensive line and Darius Leonard right behind him at linebacker.

The offense was slow to get out of the gate. An abbreviated offseason wasn’t well-suited for a quarterback change, no matter how veteran a player a team has under center. The chemistry was missing between Philip Rivers and his primary targets, and the connection that was missing most was with T.Y. Hilton. The running game was supposed to be this team’s saving grace on offense, with a dominant offensive line and a backfield that would be coveted by any NFL team.

Instead, the offensive line struggled in the early portions of the season, Marlon Mack was lost for the season with an Achilles injury after only a few carriers, and rookie Jonathan Taylor looked a little lost.

Fortunately, all of that has changed down the stretch. The offense has been dominating on the ground, Taylor has been as hot as any running back in the NFL — and that includes Derrick Henry — and it hasn’t mattered whether the Colts were placing a respectable defense or one they should be able to control.

Which Colts team will show up today? If the answer is anything other than the best version on both sides of the ball, this will be an uphill battle. Let’s take a look at the keys for a Colts victory.


TOUCHDOWNS, NOT FIELD GOALS

Look, even if the Colts are able to grind things out on the ground — and they’ll definitely need to — the Bills have numerous ways to score points. Josh Allen is connecting at a ridiculous level with his receivers, his legs punish teams who sell out to take his passing options away, and the ground game is enough of a complement that it cannot be ignored.

The point is, no matter how strong the defense is today, a Colts win will likely require a lot of points (the defense will likely need to help with that too). Settling for field goals is not how good teams score a lot of points.

Frank Reich and Philip Rivers will need to be masters of the field in Buffalo. Red-zone efficiency will be of utmost importance. Three-and-outs will have to be eliminated or heavily limited. Failure to score points consistently will place an incredible burden on the defense against an offense that is good enough to host the Lombardi this year.


SQUEEZE THE POCKET

It’s not enough to “collapse” the pocket against Josh Allen. Perhaps more important is that the pocket gets squeezed. This means Colts’ edge defenders need to keep Allen inside the tackle box and force him to throw with pressure in his face and through the long arms of DeForest Buckner and Denico Autry.

Indianapolis has struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks this season but has also gained a lot of experience against opponents who are athletically similar to Allen. Matt Eberflus is getting heavy looks for head coach openings around the league but this is his time to prove his mettle. Can he win a battle against one of the hottest quarterbacks in football? Can he straighten out the leaky secondary that has given up far too much down the stretch? Can he find a way to get pressure on Allen and keep him uncomfortable?

If not, the Colts will be unlikely to advance.


RUN THE DAMN BALL

As mentioned earlier, the offense must find a way to exploit Buffalo’s primary defensive weaknesses. If Indianapolis can get going on the ground it not only takes time off of the clock and keeps Bills’ defenders grasping for air, it also should lead to points. Sustained scoring drives, keeping Buffalo’s offense off-balance and uncomfortable, this is likely the only way the Colts are victorious.

Jonathan Taylor and Nyheim Hines have been incredibly complementary of each other down the stretch and Reich/Rivers will need to lean on them again in this one. A performance that is anywhere close to the one the Colts just put together against Jacksonville at home would really shift the scales in favor of Indianapolis and ask a hot, but young quarterback to win the biggest game of his career under undesirable circumstances.


NO BIG PLAYS

Buffalo’s offense thrives on big plays. Allen connected with Stefon Diggs for three touchdowns at New England in Week 16. In the three weeks leading up to last week’s game against Miami (the Bills won that game 56-26), Diggs caught 30 passes for 422 yards and four touchdowns. This is one of the game's elite weapons and he is on fire.

Lest you think Allen to Diggs is the only thing to worry about, Cole Beasley has also been thriving. He caught 22 passes for 283 yards and a touchdown during that same three-game stretch, including two games with over 100 receiving yards.

John Brown has long been a deep threat in this league and returned to the field just in times for the playoffs, snagging a touchdown in Week 17.

Rookie Gabriel Davis caught two passes against the Dolphins. Those two passes went for 107 yards and a touchdown.

Isaiah McKenzie caught six passes against Miami for 65 yards and two touchdowns.

This offense is deep. There isn’t a way to just take away one threat and hope for the best. It will require a full team effort to limit or eliminate big plays. No easy task for sure but if Allen starts getting easy touchdown strikes, things can get out of hand in a hurry — against any opponent.


SPECIAL TEAMS DISCIPLINE

While this could be included in the no big plays segment above, it deserves its own small section. The Bills have been dangerous returning the football this year. Andre Roberts has been efficient returning kicks and punts, averaging 30 yards per kick return and just shy of ten yards per punt return. Isaiah McKenzie returned one punt this year... it went for 84 yards a touchdown.

A win in Buffalo will require all hands on deck. All three phases will have to do their jobs and do them well. The Colts will need to bring their A-game today and they’ll need to bring it for a full 60 minutes.