Twenty-five years had passed since the Bills last playoff win prior to last Saturday, but after edging out a tough win against the Indianapolis Colts, that streak is no more. Bills QB Josh Allen was superb despite a somewhat conservative approach by OC Brian Daboll, throwing for 324 yards and 2 TD’s against a stout Colts defense, redeeming himself from the struggles he endured in his first career playoff game just one year ago. As for the rest of the Bills, it was a grind from start to finish. The Colts dominated time of possession and field position throughout the game, adding even more pressure on the Bills offense to execute in their limited opportunities. However, the offense delivered. Bills WR’s Stefon Diggs, Gabriel Davis, and Cole Beasley each exhibited inspiring efforts to help lead the Bills to victory. Diggs continued to be the elite playmaker he has always been, tallying 6 receptions for 128 yards and a TD on the day. Arguably, the biggest hero of the game was Gabriel “The ruling on the field stands” Davis who made not one, but two spectacular toe drag catches along the boundary, showcasing “ballerina-like” footwork as he stayed in bounds clinging for every last blade of grass, leading to a go-ahead TD. The gutsiest performance came from the reliable slot receiver, Cole Beasley, who led the team in catches despite grinding through the pain of a knee injury that kept him out of practice for nearly two weeks. It was the combination of these three performances, paired with the heroics of Josh Allen and clutch kicks from the rookie Tyler Bass that propelled them to victory. It will take a much more well-rounded effort to win this week, as the reigning MVP Lamar Jackson leads the red-hot Ravens into the chilled, wintery atmosphere of Orchard Park in January to challenge the humble and hungry Bills. For two quarterbacks who were told by many analysts that they would never succeed, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson are ready to put on a fun show with a trip to the AFC Championship on the line.
1. Bills Defense vs. Lamar Jackson
Simply put, Lamar Jackson is a problem. Not only is Jackson coming off a season in which he became the youngest MVP in NFL history, but he possesses a skill set mirrored only once before by a man named Michael Vick, who revolutionized the way the game is played with his gamebreaking speed. Jackson is tremendously difficult to contain for opposing defenses, posing as a significant threat to the Bills’ Super Bowl aspirations. Despite being one of the fastest running QB’s to ever play the game, it must be made very clear that Lamar Jackson is a QB, not a running back. While it may not be the strongest part of his game, Jackson can hurt teams with his arm as well as his legs. Jackson has thrown 62 TD passes within the last two seasons, leaving defenses with quite the quandary when the Ravens enter the red zone. Last season, the Bills defense actually did an effective job slowing down this dynamic Ravens offense. In fact, when the Titans had eliminated the Ravens in the playoffs last season, former Titans and now current Giants CB Logan Ryan credited the Bills defense for laying out the blueprint to stop them. Of course, teams evolve and rosters overturn, so the Bills will likely not utilize the same exact game plan that nearly won the game last year. Besides, two of the Bills most effective players in slowing down Jackson, Shaq Lawson and Star Lotulelei, are not with the team this time around. The Bills will need to rely on new additions such as A.J. Epenesa and Mario Addison to help set the edge in hopes of containing the elusive QB. Also, with DE Darryl Johnson missing the last 3 practices, there is a good chance that Trent Murphy plays a big role this weekend. Much like Lawson and Lotulelei, Murphy did an admirable job of limiting Jackson on the ground last season. As difficult as it is to game plan for a talent like Lamar Jackson, there are arguably no coaches more up to the task than HC Sean McDermott and DC Leslie Frazier.
2. Bills Run Defense vs. J.K. Dobbins/Gus Edwards
The part that makes the Ravens run game so difficult to stop is not just that they have a rare talent at QB that can hurt you with his legs, but also two extremely talented backs that can hurt you equally as much. Last season, the identity of the Ravens rushing attack was much different than what it is today. In 2019, the Ravens backfield was led by former Heisman winner Mark Ingram, who rushed for 1,018 yards and 10 TD’s, wearing down defenses with his hard-nosed, downhill running style. Now at the age of 31, Ingram’s production has fallen off quite a bit. Ingram finished the regular season with only 299 rushing yards, paving the way for a new lead back to emerge. In the 2020 NFL Draft, the Baltimore Ravens selected RB J.K. Dobbins from Ohio State exactly one pick after the Bills took their young edge rusher, A.J. Epenesa, from the University of Iowa in the second round. Dobbins had a very successful college career, but it was not until Week 8 of the regular season when his opportunity finally began to open up. The Ravens struggled heavily early on in the season, but ever since Dobbins emerged as the lead back, things finally began to click for this Ravens offense. Dobbins averaged a whopping 6 yards per carry on 134 attempts, rushing for 805 yards and 9 TD’s along the way. Had Dobbins taken over the lead role sooner, he would have easily eclipsed the 1,000 yard mark. Dobbins is a special talent, but he is not the only quality back Baltimore possesses. Gus Edwards has also been a very reliable weapon in the Ravens backfield, averaging 5 yards per carry on 144 attempts for 723 yards and 6 TD’s. Due to the success of Dobbins and Edwards, Ingram has quietly faded into the background, being listed as a healthy scratch most weeks. The three-headed monster of Jackson, Dobbins, and Edwards poses as a significant problem for a Bills defense that has struggled to stop the run. Coming off a week in which the talented tandem of Jonathan Taylor and Naheem Hines ran all over the Bills defense, Buffalo will need to emphasize gap integrity this week more than ever.
3. Josh Allen vs. Ravens Blitz Heavy Scheme
Baltimore Ravens DC Wink Martindale has never been afraid to send the house on defense, and that continues to be true as the Ravens blitzed more than any other team in the league this season. Just one season ago, Martindale utilized the same game plan to an even higher degree, running a Cover 0 defense for an eye opening 16 times during the game. At the time, Josh Allen did not have an answer for that relentless pressure, completing only 43 percent of his passes for 146 yards and a TD that game. “It’s a tough watch,” said Allen, as he prepares for a rematch with the aggressive Baltimore defensive front. Baltimore’s game plan worked perfectly last year as a result of Buffalo’s limited offensive firepower, but as previously mentioned, a whole lot can change in just one year. Only one year after possessing the 23rd ranked offense in the NFL, the Bills storm into the divisional round with the 2nd highest scoring offense in the league led by a revamped WR room and an emerging superstar at QB. Josh Allen’s productivity took off with the addition of Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis to pair alongside Cole Beasley and John Brown, opening up the field for an abundance of big play opportunities. In year 3, Allen’s ability to make pre-snap reads has grown equally as much, now ranking as the NFL’s most efficient QB against blitzes this season. Allen accumulated 19 TD’s and 1,850 total yards against blitzes this season, ranking first in the league in both categories. Perhaps the Ravens continue with the same blitz-heavy scheme that has carried them this far, trusting the abilities of Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters to cover the Bills boatload of talent at WR while sending various pressures in an attempt to disrupt Allen. However, doing so may be a grave mistake against an offense that has made teams pay for doing so all season long, just as Patrick Mahomes did to the Ravens back in Week 3. If Buffalo’s pass protection holds up, it could be a big day for the Bills passing game.
Everyone knows what is at stake in this game. This is the furthest the Bills have advanced in the playoffs in most young fan’s lifetimes. There are no easy paths to glory, and getting past this Ravens team will be an incredibly tough task. However, that is a challenge that this Bills team is ready to embrace. The story of this season has been conquering demons that have haunted the Bills for decades. After years of struggling to do so, this Bills team has dominated opponents on National TV, swept the AFC East, won the AFC East, and have now gotten their first playoff win under their belt in the McDermott era. No moment is too big for this Bills team, and they do not appear to be satisfied just yet. The Buffalo Bills are a much different team than what the world has grown accustomed to seeing, and they are ready to prove that once again versus a tough Baltimore Ravens team under the bright lights of Bills Stadium. There is a chance of snow in the forecast for Saturday night, which for Lamar Jackson, who has never played in snow before, hopes he does not have to deal with now. As legendary Bills HC Marv Levy once said, “when it’s too tough for them, it’s just right for us”, and with 6,700 passionate Bills Mafia members screaming in the stands while emphatically hitting the bleachers, it is hard to envision a more chilling environment for an opposing player to walk into this time of year.