Before the Buffalo Bills and Houston Texans faced off against their Week 17 foes, their playoff destinies were already aligned. The AFC South champion Texans (10-6) were locked into the No. 4 seed because of Kansas City’s win earlier in the day and the Bills (10-6) had already held the No. 5 seed heading into the weekend.
With their respective postseasons on the horizon, both teams held starters out of their regular-season finales, rendering each game somewhat pointless — except for the win-or-go-home Titans. Houston’s Deshaun Watson and DeAndre Hopkins were listed as active against Tennessee but never saw the field, while Laremy Tunsil, Kenny Stills, J.J. Watt, and Will Fuller were all inactive, but expected back for the playoffs. Buffalo’s Josh Allen didn’t return after a scoreless first quarter against the Jets as Frank Gore took a seat after the first half. While both teams still have lingering injury issues heading into Wild Card Weekend, its safe to say that both Houston and Buffalo have been eagerly awaiting this game for some time.
AFC Wild Card: Buffalo at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 4 at 4:35 p.m. ET
Spread: Texans -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The return of J.J. Watt
Watt has officially returned for the Houston Texans. The three-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year was formally taken off injured reserve and placed on the active roster this week after practicing during Week 17. Watt has missed the last eight games due to a torn pectoral muscle suffered back before Halloween in Week 8.
While the return of one of this generation’s best players is a huge boon for Houston, it is still fair to wonder how effective Watt will be after such a long absence — especially since he wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire in the games he did play this season. Through the first eight weeks of this season, Watt recorded just four sacks, four tackles for a loss, and 24 total tackles.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel was impressed with his star defensive end’s practice performance last week but is still using caution in how he’ll use him in Saturday’s playoff game. Crennel said on Tuesday that Watt will likely only be utilized in pass-rushing situations such as third downs and in two-minute situations.
No matter Watt’s conditioning after such a long layoff, his presence can only help a Texans defense that is near the bottom in every defensive category, including sacks (23.5, tied for 26th).
2. Josh Allen
We are about to find out if Allen is ready to take the next step in his quarterback development. Simply put, teams cannot win in the postseason without above-average quarterback play and for the entirety of Allen’s second season he’s been very average. Saturday, the second-year signal-caller from Wyoming has an opportunity to flip that narrative on its head against a struggling Texans defense that ranks 28th in total defense, 26th in first downs allowed, and has already given up more than 1,900 rushing yards.
Allen will have his chances to take shots against Houston’s secondary that has been depleted all season long, but he is going to have to be more accurate than he’s shown this year. Of all the players that have thrown passes in the NFL this season, Allen is 50th in completion percentage (58.8). On throws of 20 yards or more, he’s completing just 26.5 percent of his passes for a 28th-best QBR of 36.8.
If the Texans are able to limit the Bills from taking shots downfield, Allen will still have opportunities to move the chains against Houston using his athleticism and legs. The Texans have allowed opposing quarterbacks to pick up 5.6 yards per rushing attempt this season, second worst in the league. And Allen has led the league in rushing yards and touchdowns from scrambling situations since he came into the NFL last year. Look for Allen to take off from the pocket, especially on third downs, when he has picked up 17 rushing first downs with his legs this season.
3. Texans’ offense with or without Will Fuller
The Houston offense has been as inconsistent and frustrating as trying to be friends with your ex. Some days they are super sweet and exciting, scoring points in bunches and throwing the ball all over the field. Other days, they’re frustrating, not returning your calls with too many three-and-outs and getting dominated in the first quarter.
Much of the Texans’ erratic offensive behavior has been due to the uncertainty surrounding Fuller. The big-play wide receiver has been in and out of the lineup all season long and his absences have been palpable. With him in the lineup, the Texans average 298 passing yards per game, 26.3 points, and have an 8-3 record. Without Fuller, Houston’s numbers plummet to 158 passing yards per game, 19.6 points, and a 2-3 mark. Fuller’s status for Saturday is uncertain as he missed last week’s regular-season finale with a groin injury he suffered in Week 16.
Fuller’s impact starts with speed and his ability to take the top off opposing defensive backfields with big gains and opening up the middle of the field for DeAndre Hopkins. If Fuller is out against Buffalo, look for the Bills to switch from their typical zone defense to man-to-man to cover Hopkins, primarily using lockdown corner Tre’Davious White on the Texans’ top target.
So much of this game will come down to how cohesive the Texans are with so many players set to return after sitting out last week or coming back from injury, especially on the offensive side of the ball against the Bills’ second-ranked scoring defense. If Watson and his receivers can find their rhythm early, unlike they’ve done all season, I like their chances to move on to next week.
Prediction: Texans 22, Bills 18
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.