The Buffalo Bills are just two games away from being able to hit the restart button and, more importantly, being able to start preparing to end the playoff drought in 2016. But, before they can do all that, they first must close out the season with two contests at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
First up is a matchup with an equally as disappointing Dallas Cowboys team, who dealt with injuries to the quarterback position all year long, and are now 4-10 on the season as a result. The Bills have said they are going to do everything in their power to win the final two games of the season.
So, how do they stack up against the Cowboys? Five things to watch for in the upcoming matchup:
1) Bills run defense will be tested
- The Buffalo Bills will get the opportunity to go up against the fourth quarterback that the Dallas Cowboys will have started this season, in former practice squad player and college football hero Kellen Moore. The quarterback will be making his first NFL start after replacing Matt Cassel in the first half last weekend against the New York Jets, which means the Cowboys will want to keep the pressure off of him. To accomplish that, Dallas is likely to put trust into their offensive line, which is one of the top units in all the NFL. The five linemen have helped Darren McFadden rejuvenate his career, and have performed admirably all season long, as the Cowboys have the 10th highest rushing total in the league this season. Especially without Nigel Bradham in the lineup once again, the Cowboys will look to attack the struggling linebacker Preston Brown and force him to step up and make a play. Because of all the injuries, we may even see the Cowboys play a little bit more of a base offense than normal, which would bring former practice squad linebacker Kevin Reddick on to the field along with Brown and Manny Lawson. While Lawson has stood out this month, the other two have left a lot to be desired. It will also be a treat to watch Marcell Dareus work against the interior of Dallas’ stellar offensive line, because all three are good players in their own right. The Bills have every opportunity to dominate this game, but they must limit the run game to have any hope of doing so.
2) Put some heat on Moore
- If they do limit the effectiveness of the Cowboys’ run offense, that means they’ll be forced to throw the ball way more than they want to. Just last week, Moore came in and threw the ball 25 times, only completing 15 of them for 158 yards, and also turned the ball over three separate times. To his credit, he also threw a touchdown pass for the Cowboys. When Dallas drops back to pass, the Bills will need to put some pressure on Moore and force him to make decisions in the pocket that can potentially force turnovers in the Bills’ favor. This will be one of Jerry Hughes’ toughest matchups this season against left tackle Tyron Smith, who is one of the best tackles in all the NFL. They’ll need to dial up some help from linebackers and safeties to get Moore a little nervous in the pocket, and to also limit how much time backups Leodis McKelvin and Mario Butler are in coverage if Ronald Darby is unable to play.
3) Extra pressure on Watkins
- Sammy Watkins was going to command a lot of attention anyway, but now without both LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay and Robert Woods in the lineup, that makes the target on Watkins’ back that much larger. The Cowboys will do whatever they can to take away Watkins, likely rolling coverage to his side of the field a majority of the time, while they allow players like Chris Hogan, Marcus Easley, and Dez Lewis to be in single-coverage, and to prove to them that they can make an impact on the game. He may have some opportunity underneath if rookie Byron Jones starts at free safety, because Dallas cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr have struggled this season. However, the Bills may find more resistance taking the top off the defense due to the impressive rookie season of Jones if he is indeed playing safety. Jones plays safety when Claiborne has been unavailable to the Cowboys, and that again may be the case on Sunday. Whatever Dallas' strategy is, the Bills will have to hope either one of the other receiving options, or the run game steps up to take all the attention off of Watkins.
4) No McCoy means Bills will have two-headed attack
- The Bills were without star running back LeSean McCoy all week long due to his knee injury, which means they’ll have to live life without him against the Cowboys on Sunday. The Cowboys have allowed 110.9 yards per game on the ground in 2015, 18th in the league, which will present some opportunity for the two young runners that the Bills are going to highlight in the upcoming matchup. Fifth-round pick Karlos Williams got off to a fast start in his rookie season, but has still been limited this past week due to a shoulder injury. However, in his carries during the second half against Washington, Williams flashed impressive ability with not only his north-south style, but showed the vision required to play the position. It likely won’t be split right down the middle, but expect to see quite a bit of Mike Gillislee as well. A sneaky addition to the active roster a few weeks ago, Gillislee now has a touchdown in each of the last two weeks, and serves as the team’s threat on screens and draw plays. Neither offer the dynamic running style that McCoy does, but, they’ll have a fantastic opportunity to further their reputation with the coaching staff, and to set the tone against Dallas.
5) Young players may get some more run
- With the Bills eliminated from playoff contention, they have said they’ll do everything in their power to win the remaining two games. However, this also serves as a great evaluation period for the coaches and front office to see how some of the younger players on the team react to a game that actually means something. Players like tight end Nick O’Leary, wide receiver Dez Lewis, cornerback Mario Butler, and maybe even tackle Cyrus Kouandjio could see some more time on the field than they would under most circumstances. Injuries have paved the way for both O’Leary and Lewis, but poor play at cornerback and right tackle could help Butler and Kouandjio see some time as well. Another player to keep an eye on is the recently acquired Max Valles. An outside linebacker fit for the 3-4 defense, the Bills may want to see how the 21-year old rookie Valles responds to a handful of snaps if they elect to make him active.
OUT: TE Charles Clay (back), HB LeSean McCoy (knee), LB Nigel Bradham (ankle)
QUESTIONABLE: CB Ronald Darby (groin)
PROBABLE: DE Mario Williams (hand), HB Anthony Dixon (knee), DT Stefan Charles (shoulder), CB Ron Brooks (neck), S Bacarri Rambo (knee), WR Walter Powell (hip), HB Karlos Williams (shoulder), C Eric Wood (shoulder), G John Miller (ankle)
OUT: QB Tony Romo (left shoulder), TE Gavin Escobar (achilles), WR Dez Bryant (foot), CB Morris Claiborne (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: LB Kyle Wilber (shoulder), WR Cose Beasley (knee)
PROBABLE: S Jeff Heath (shoulder), LB Rolando McClain (concussion), DE DeMarcus Lawrence (chest), P Chris Jones (left knee)
Prediction: Bills over Cowboys
- When the Bills and Cowboys take to the field on Sunday, it will be a matchup between two teams that have been significantly impacted by injuries this season, and this past week as well. Expect this to be a low-scoring, ball control, run-oriented contest for both teams with the best offensive line/defense combination being the one that comes out on top. The Cowboys can be taken advantage of on the ground, which plays right into the sweet spot of Bills offensive coordinator Greg Roman. It is imperative that the Bills put a stop to Darren McFadden before he really gets going, and to force the young Kellen Moore to throw it outside the numbers. If they force the issue there, they can potentially force turnovers and win their seventh game of the season.
**Season-long record predicting Bills games: 7-7
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