If the Bills have any question about what they will be facing Sunday afternoon at Highmark Stadium, they need only turn back their mental Rolodexes 10 months.
That’s when they hosted their first playoff game in 24 years … and won their initial postseason game in a quarter century.
It was anything but easy.
Before a coronavirus-shrunken crowd of 6,772, favored Buffalo, 13-3, faced Indianapolis, 11-5, a dome team which benefited from un-January-like weather.
The Bills led 24-10 in the second half and were still up 27-16 with just over six minutes to play. Still, it took Buffalo safety Micah Hyde knocking down Philip Rivers’ 47-yard “Hail Mary” bid for T.Y. Hilton in the end zone on 4th-and-11 as time expired to secure a 27-24 win.
THOSE same two teams meet again tomorrow (1 o’clock CBS-TV, 95.7 FM, 100.1 FM, 550 AM) and both the Bills (6-3) and Colts (5-5) aren’t playing to 2020 standards.
For Indianapolis, Rivers is retired, replaced by trade acquisition Carson Wentz, the former Eagle. After opening the season 0-3 and 1-4, the Colts have won four of their last five. Though none of their victims have a winning record, the lone loss in the streak was a 34-31 overtime defeat by Tennessee (conference-best 8-2 record), one of Indy’s two OT setbacks this season.
INDIANAPOLIS is coached by revered former Bills backup quarterback Frank Reich who admitted of seeing the video of last season’s playoff loss, “I’m not going to lie, it was painful to watch that this week. But, yet, it was also encouraging. We went on the road against one of the hottest teams in the NFL, in one of the hardest stadiums to play at, at a very difficult time of year, and had a really good chance to win the game.
“There’s a lot to be proud of in that effort (though) we know there’s no consolation prize. But, at the same time, it was a great effort by our team and I think we’re a better team than we were last year and that can give us some confidence going back up there this year.”
And Bills coach Sean McDermott agrees Indianapolis seems improved from the team that gave Buffalo all it wanted back in January.
“They have talent across the roster in all three phases,” he said. “They play well and they’re really well-coached. It’ll be a big challenge for us.”
BUFFALO continues to lead the NFL in defense: fewest points (15) and yards (274) surrendered per game. It’s second in least passing yards (190) and third in fewest rushing yards (83) given up per start.
But the Colts are averaging an impressive 27 points per game and rely on a ground game that ranks sixth in the NFL at 136 yards per game behind Jonathan Taylor. Through 10 games, he’s averaging 94 yards per start and has scored 10 touchdowns (one through the air). With the Titans’ Derrick Henry out injured for the rest of the regular season, Taylor is the odds-on favorite to win the league’s rushing title.
“I think the running game is at a really good spot and continuing to get better,” Reich admitted. “It’s not perfect but Jonathan (Taylor) is hot and just the whole team, I think, we’re incrementally a little bit better in every unit.
“We’re a year older, we’ve added more players, we retained most of the good players that we had and they’re in the system another year.”
HOWEVER, tomorrow’s focus is likely to be on ball security.
Buffalo ranks No. 1 in NFL takeaway/giveaway percentage at plus-15, the Colts are second at plus-11.
As Reich noted, “We never take (Indy’s success at getting takeaways) for granted, we know that we’re going up against a defense that’s No.1 in the NFL in takeaways, so this is where we need to be at our best protecting the ball.
“This team, defensively, is so well-coached and they play so well together.”
AND BILLS quarterback Josh Allen added, “The detail they put into punching the ball out … and when the ball’s in the air they do a really good job of being aggressive and going after it.
“The emphasis is on ball security. Any team that plays them, they have to understand they’re going to punch the ball and it’s not going to be one play, it’s going to be every single play there’s hands flying at the ball.”
Allen also conceded there’s a premium on scoring first.
“It’s a good feeling when you’re able to put up seven in the first quarter … coach (McDermott) talks about trying to force (the opponent) to be one dimensional allowing us to do whatever we want (offensively) and not just be forced to throw the ball,” he said.
“Statistics show that the first team that scores has a better percentage of winning, so getting off to a hot start is very critical.”
And then, of course, there’s Sunday’s weather, temperatures in the mid-40s with rain.
But Allen noted, “(My coach at Wyoming) said if you want to win in the North Atlantic, you’d better train in the North Atlantic. We get the chance to come out here (in practice) and feel what it’s going to be like on Sunday before it happens.
“We understand we’re in an outdoor stadium and weather is just part of the element here … wind, snow, rain … we’ve got to find a way to adjust. That’s part of football, you’ve got to deal with a whole bunch of obstacles in your way and figure it out.”