Wild Card Weekend begins with arguably the most intriguing matchup out of all the games. Both the Buffalo Bills and the Houston Texans are very worthy of the playoff spots they earned, and both franchises had good seasons. For the Buffalo Bills, it feels like this is the first time they’ve had a strong team since the inception of the 2000s, despite the team’s playoff appearance in 2017.
Sean McDermott has done an incredible job turning around this franchise, and he deserves every last ounce of credit for developing one of the best defenses in the league. However, the AFC South Champions should not be underestimated. The Texans may have been an up and down team this season, but with a 10-6 record and an opportunity to prove themselves in the playoffs, they definitely have a chance to win this game.
Buffalo needs to throw the ball downfield and take advantage of not-so-great cornerback play in the opposing secondary. John Brown should have some very favorable 1-on-1 matchups against the likes of Gareon Conley and Bradley Roby. Brian Daboll needs to help Josh Allen by calling these deep shots at the right time.
Even in their loss to the Patriots, Allen showed he could execute these playcalls if used appropriately (55 yard touchdown to Brown and a seam route to tight end Dawson Knox nearing the end of the first half). Stay aggressive, put the ball in your quarterback’s hands, and take advantage of man coverage by going deep.
It’s arguable that this game may fall on Brian Daboll just as much as it may on Josh Allen, especially with regards to the run game. As usual, there is no reason to abandon the run early. If it doesn’t work, design it so that it works. In the case of the Bills, Daboll needs to be very situationally aware of which running back he uses on which style of run.
The Bills OC has a very annoying habit of running Frank Gore, a much bigger back, to the outside, and Gore is much better when he’s running inside. Rookie runner Devin Singletary can succeed in almost any style of run, but Daboll needs to make the lives of both backs easier by calling the running plays that suit them best. On that note, please don’t run Gore 3 straight times inside the 10, especially if Singletary has been running Houston over. Just don’t.
Finally, call plays where Allen has a safety valve. If there are routes he doesn’t want to throw because of coverage, give him an open read so he can get rid of the ball and keep the chains moving. This is his first playoff game, so getting him in rhythm can only be a positive thing for the Bills.
Blitz Deshaun Watson. As much as blitzing a good quarterback can be a recipe for disaster, Buffalo’s elite secondary can stay in coverage long enough so a 6 or 7 man pass rush can get home. Furthermore, Houston’s inability to protect Watson makes blitzing much easier for the Bills’ defense, as they are much more disciplined and communicate far better than Houston’s offensive line.
Buffalo also needs to account for Watson’s ability to scramble, as it is arguably his most dangerous weapon. In order to do this, McDermott must call coverages that allow a middle linebacker to spy the young quarterback. A mike linebacker (Tremaine Edmunds) who can run with Deshaun might just save the Bills from impending doom if he gets out of the pocket, because once again, that’s where he’s most dangerous.
Another way to prevent a mobile quarterback from escaping the pocket is to keep contain, especially the defensive line. If the edge protectors such as Trent Murphy and Shaq Lawson set the edge for their interior linemen (Jordan Phillips and Star Lotulelei), the Bills can easily disrupt the pocket and force incompletions, or even better, sack the quarterback.
Get DeAndre Hopkins the ball. While that may seem self-explanatory, there can be no doubt that Buffalo will make that as difficult as possible. Hopkins is unanimously considered one of the 3 best receivers in the league, but Bills corner Tre’Davious White is the 2nd best player at his position, and will receive First-Team All-Pro honors this season. White has not given up a touchdown this season, and leads the league with 6 interceptions.
So, Bill O’Brien needs to design plays for Hopkins where he’s not 1-on-1 against White, because that’s a matchup Buffalo will live with. As long as Hopkins is limited, Houston will have very little success against this defense. Whether it’s RPOs (run-pass option), screens, or quick passing, Hopkins needs to get the ball, so isolate him against a Bills corner not named Tre’Davious White.
Furthermore, O’Brien needs to mix up how he uses Hopkins. On plays where Hopkins isn’t the main read, use him to help Will Fuller and Kenny Stills get favorable matchups against the Bills’ backup corners. If Hopkins can be used both as a main read and as a decoy, Houston’s diversified playcalling will be enough to win this game.
Buffalo’s biggest weakness on defense is by far their inability to stop the run. Especially because of guys like Lotulelei, who cannot stonewall the line of scrimmage, the rest of the Bills defense suffers as a result. Houston can punish this tendency by rotating Duke Johnson Jr and Carlos Hyde on different styles of runs, and then play action should work when those linebackers bite against the run.
The return of J.J. Watt is by far the most important news headline as it pertains to this game. Even though Watt may be healthy for the first time since the fall, going up against double teams will not make his life any easier.
Houston needs to blitz Josh Allen and rattle the young quarterback early with different disguises. In simpler terms, be sneaky, call blitzes, and make Allen see ghosts. Give J.J. Watt 1-on-1 matchups so he can dominate the line of scrimmage, and allowing coverages to benefit off of an aggressive, attacking style will help Romeo Crennel control the outcome of this game.
All in all, Buffalo should win this game in a nail-biter. While Houston has the better quarterback and the better receivers, Buffalo matches up extremely well and has better coaching. Furthermore, McDermott’s adjustments cover the apparent weaknesses on Buffalo’s roster. Unfortunately, Houston’s weaknesses are a lot more exploitable and their season should end at the hands of the Josh Allen and the Bills’ defense.
Final Score: Bills 10, Texans 6.