Head coach Frank Reich of the Indianapolis Colts knows all about the Buffalo Bills. The career NFL backup spent a decade slotted behind Jim Kelly in Buffalo, known for one of the best fill-in performances in Wild Card history: a 32-point comeback to defeat the Houston Oilers in January 1993.
Now, Reich must incite that underdog mentality for the Colts as they face what is arguably the hottest team in the league. His former team, 2020 AFC East division champions, have won their last six games by an average of more than 18 points. Their current quarterback, Josh Allen, is an MVP candidate who set the team record with 4,544 passing yards this season. The AFC Offensive Player of the Month for December is just the second Bills offensive player to win the monthly award twice in a season (Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas is the other).
The Colts counter with Philip Rivers, the 17-year veteran quarterback who threw for more than 4,100 yards this season in his own right. Rivers has had a roller-coaster career filled with a few interceptions at crucial moments, keeping him from ever reaching a Super Bowl despite eight Pro Bowl appearances. But Reich, the former offensive coordinator for Rivers' former team, the Los Angeles Chargers, believed in his ability enough to bring the QB to Indianapolis for what has become a successful 11-5 season.
"I was confident [in] the overarching trajectory of what he would do this year for our team," Reich said. "[It] would be an arrow up, see him getting better and better, and I believe that has come to fruition."
Rivers' interception count is down to just 11 this season after 20 last year. That's important as the key to the Colts' success, well balanced on both sides of the ball, might be mistake-free football, building on their plus-10 turnover margin that ranks second in the NFL.
Can the Colts stop the Josh Allen runaway train and pull the upset? Or will Buffalo start their march through the postseason as a trendy Super Bowl pick?
AFC Wild Card: Indianapolis at Buffalo
Kickoff: Saturday, Jan. 9 at 1:05 p.m. ET
Spread: Buffalo -6.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Can Josh Allen be stopped? Or Stefon Diggs?
Allen is simply on a tear. In a game last week against Miami, he passed for 224 yards and three touchdowns in a first-half effort, treating it like a junior varsity playoff tune-up. Keep in mind the 10-win Dolphins were fighting for a playoff spot while the game meant nothing for the Bills, who wound up thrashing their division rival 56-26.
How in the world did Allen become this good? A great Sports Illustrated article from November focuses on his association with Jordan Palmer, the private quarterback coach and Carson's brother who has molded some of the great young arms in the game. Their biggest achievement together has been upgrading Allen's accuracy year-to-year: from 52.8, to 58.8, to a 69.2 completion rate this season, fourth-best in the NFL.
As Allen has caught fire, the past two months especially, it correlates to the rise of main receiving target and offseason trade acquisition Stefon Diggs. Diggs now has three 100-yard receiving performances in his last six games, including a three-touchdown performance against the Patriots two weeks ago, and led the NFL with 1,535 receiving yards in the regular season.
That's a problem for the Colts, who have two members of the secondary working through the concussion protocol: safety Khari Willis and cornerback Rock Ya-Sin. Their availability could make the difference for a unit that ranked just 20th against the pass. In just the last month, Indianapolis allowed Deshaun Watson and Ben Roethlisberger to throw for 300-plus yards in back-to-back games.
If Allen goes for 300-plus on Saturday, it's likely a rout. And he's got the right mindset going on after an awkward playoff loss last season against the Houston Texans in which the Bills squandered a 16-0 early lead.
"Nothing matters unless we win this one," Allen said to reporters Tuesday. "That's our mindset, going from playoff-caliber to championship-caliber."
2. Philip Rivers and the playoffs
Rivers came back to try for a Super Bowl and starts his journey from the bottom in a powerful AFC (every playoff team had 11 wins or more). His career postseason record is just 5-6, throwing 10 interceptions in those 11 games while producing a middling QB rating of 84.2. In particular, the Patriots were always his nemesis: Rivers is 0-5 in his career in Foxborough, 0-3 in the playoffs as he dealt with several frustrating losses during that dynasty.
Now, it's a different AFC East opponent blocking Rivers' quest to get over the hump. This time around, he's been buoyed by one of the best offensive lines in football; the 39-year-old was sacked just 19 times in 2020, the second-lowest total of his 17-year career. The running game backed up that performance, with rookie Johnathan Taylor putting up 1,169 yards, good enough for second in the AFC. (Taylor was limited in practice this week with a nagging shoulder issue but is expected to play at full strength).
The balance has given Rivers more time to throw to weapons like veteran wide receiver T.Y. Hilton and pass-catching back Nyheim Hines. But unlike his recent time in Los Angeles, there is no standout receiver like Keenan Allen who will break away in one-on-one coverage. Rivers succeeds here by managing the game well and spreading the ball around. Nine Colts players enter this game with 250 receiving yards this season, a variety of role players who have come together and run an efficient offense.
One big plus for Rivers? His last two postseason victories have come on the road. And COVID-19 restrictions have limited crowds and can help negate home-field advantages like the one the Bills will enjoy on Saturday.
"We don't have to do anything different now," Rivers said this week. "It's not like, 'Now we made it to the postseason, so let's really prepare hard and let's really put in our best stuff and let's really try our hardest to do things right.' If that were to be true, then we'd been cheating each other for 16 games.
"We do have to make some plays, obviously, but you don't have to do anything unbelievable. Just go play sound football, complementary football together, and we believe if we do that, then it will be enough."
The key is for Rivers not to throw that game-changing interception or pick-six. Many casual fans would be surprised at how the Colts' plus-10 turnover margin trailed only the Tennessee Titans in the NFL. Rivers has done a great job at leading the team after an awkward start (losing to the 1-15 Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1) and will put his best foot forward in what could be his NFL finale.
3. Special teams
The Bills and Colts have each scored on a special teams return this season. Isaiah McKenzie shined last week for the Bills on an 84-yard punt return that effectively put the game away in the first half. The Colts' Isaiah Rodgers had a 101-yard kickoff return against the Cleveland Browns back in October. Either organization is capable of a repeat; in particular, the Colts might be studying the "Music City Miracle" as motivation for how to pull off the upset.
Both teams also possess reliable kickers who finished in the top five in NFL scoring: Tyler Bass (4th) and Rodrigo Blankenship (5th). Both capable of hitting from beyond 50 yards, whichever scores a slight edge makes the difference in a game where the Colts need a few breaks to go their way. Bass, in particular, has been red hot; he hasn't missed a kick since November while Blankenship missed two field goals alone in the regular-season finale.
There's one home-field edge the Bills can't lose due to COVID-19: the weather. The Colts will come from a dome to a chilly 36-degree high for this weekend's wild-card game. That's with a quarterback who spent much of his career in warm weather climates, plays in a dome, and struggled in cold weather environments like the Patriots' home stadium in Foxborough.
Add in the Bills' burst of December momentum and it's all too much for a Colts team that doesn't quite have enough pieces yet for a Super Bowl run.
Prediction: Bills 34, Colts 24
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.