In order for the Buffalo Bills to end their longstanding playoff drought, a spotless final quarter of the season will likely be in order. That starts on Sunday at New Era Field against the Indianapolis Colts — a team that has struggled without Andrew Luck to a 3-9 record.
The Bills are having their own issues at quarterback, and are without a defined starter as it stands today. What are the keys to this game, and can the Bills take care of business?
Five things to watch for when the Bills play the Colts:
1) Which QB will it be?
- This is the biggest question both the Colts and Bills fans alike are asking when it comes to this weekend’s game. On one hand, there’s Tyrod Taylor — who is currently recovering from a knee injury that kept him out of practice on Wednesday and only practiced on a limited basis over the final two days of work. Taylor “when healthy” is the starter for “this week,” but head coach Sean McDermott also said they wouldn’t rush Taylor on the field in the event that he has a chance to make the injury worse. On the other hand, there’s Nathan Peterman — who is perfectly healthy, but can’t be declared the starter outright by the head coach if there is any lingering thought that Taylor might be able to play — perhaps even if that’s what the head coach wants to do. McDermott already pulled the Peterman tab once this season and it blew up spectacularly, so while the Bills still have playoff breath at 6-6, he likely can’t afford to name Peterman the starter under the present conditions without some concern from within the locker room. That’s why he’s chosen his words very carefully this week, balancing a slight optimism that Taylor can play (since he’s able to practice) while continuing to build up Peterman. It’s such an involved situation because Taylor pushes through pain unlike most players in the NFL, but yet his presence could also make them more predictable than they have been on offense. If I had to guess, at the time of writing this, I think more signs are pointing toward Peterman playing, but things can change in a hurry if Taylor wakes up and his knee feels great — at which point McDermott wouldn’t have any other choice.
2) Which QB would be best?
- This is a completely separate question than the first, and likely just as muddied as that one. With Peterman exists the obvious — the rookie threw five interceptions in his first start and nearly threw two more interceptions in mop-up duty against the New England Patriots. He’s still trying to figure it out as he goes. With Taylor, he’s got a knee injury that could very well restrict him in the areas that offer some dynamic ways the defense has to account for. In the past two games, really the only thing that has worked for the passing offense is when Taylor has been able to scramble out of trouble where he either keeps his eyes downfield and completes a pass, or he scampers for positive yardage — which is often a first down. On Thursday, there was a noticeable hesitation with fully digging his left leg into the ground, which is an issue for a quarterback that offers so much utility as a runner. It lessens and restricts the game plan, and forces Taylor to be more of a pocket passer — which hasn’t been a consistent source of strength for Taylor this season. If he can’t do that, the predictability of the offense is a lot higher and that could turn into a source of frustration all day. The only way the Bills should start him is if they are fully confident Taylor can take advantage of those dynamic areas to his game, otherwise, they’d be starting the quarterback that offers less from in the pocket. The trouble is, the better pocket passer is one that served up five interceptions in his lone start. So what’s better in this situation? Again, I’m inclined to say Peterman because he’s willing to try and gun a throw into a spot, but an argument could be made for just a hold-steady style offense with Taylor and an overall dependence on the running game that offers less volatility. There really isn’t a good answer between the two options.
3) Incorporating Benjamin
- Whichever player does start has to make sure of one thing: that they get Kelvin Benjamin going on Sunday. The Colts secondary is their distinct weakness, starting players that are best suited to be special teams contributors than starting defenders. There isn’t a single player in that secondary that can match the physicality that Benjamin will present, nor the length that can make a reception when he just doesn’t look open. Focusing on Benjamin will be important to take some stress off of the running offense, which might put another mark on the ‘Peterman’ side of the ledger. Benjamin’s strength is in possession receptions, and offers a relatively slow breakdown at the top of his routes. In most cases, this would be an irreversible deficiency in a receiver's game, but Benjamin can just out-body a player and come up with a catch for a first down. There isn’t a ton of room to get the ball in there, which makes it a lot more likely that Peterman will try to take advantage of that than Taylor would. For the Bills to win, the secondary of the Colts must be exploited. Something has to give between a passing offense that hardly gets going, and a pass defense that can hardly stop anyone — and the Bills have to make sure they’re on the right side of that matchup.
4) Attacking from up the middle
- Don’t go into this game thinking the Indianapolis Colts will just roll over and die on offense — they have some teeth to their attack. Jacoby Brissett, for what he’s had to work with this year, has done a solid job and shows signs of life as the starting quarterback. As the weeks have gone on, he’s gotten increasingly more comfortable and has been able to move the ball. However, if the Bills want to make him uncomfortable, they’ll need to continue something they got last week against New England: pressure on the quarterback from their defensive tackles. The Colts have struggled without starting center Ryan Kelly and he's out again this week, but also, the two guards — Joe Haeg and Jeremy Vujnovich — are ripe for the picking. If the Bills can isolate those players into a one-on-one matchup, they can have some success against this team. The length of Adolphus Washington will be critical against Vujnovich, while the baiting technique of Williams can give Haeg some trouble. It will help get Brissett off his spot a bit, and will also limit the potential effectiveness of Frank Gore and Marlon Mack. Stopping the run game has been an underrated deficiency of the defense this year, but they at least have a winnable matchup to make it less of a problem on Sunday.
5) Colts X-factor: Marlon Mack
- If they cannot win up the middle, the player that can make a game-breaking play in a likely close and low-scoring contest is rookie running back Marlon Mack. You can’t miss him on the field because when he gets through the first level, he can take off with his speed. Mack did a better job against the Jacksonville Jaguars last week of running between the tackles and properly reading the holes his offensive line was presenting to him. The Colts don’t like to use him much, and that probably brings his effectiveness way up. Frank Gore, even at 34 years old, still has a nice burst and can make a defense pay for not winning up front — but he’s nowhere near the speed level of Mack, which likely lulls defenses into a mode of creeping up a little closer to the line of scrimmage. If Mack gets into the open field, look out — the guy can straight up fly.
OUT: G John Miller
QUESTIONABLE: QB Tyrod Taylor, T Cordy Glenn, T Seantrel Henderson, CB Leonard Johnson, DT Kyle Williams
OUT: TE Darrell Daniels, C Ryan Kelly, CB Rashaan Melvin, WR Donte Moncrief
QUESTIONABLE: T Denzelle Good, CB Chris Milton, C Mike Person
Prediction: Colts over Bills
- This is one of those games that you just kind of get a weird feeling about. I think it’s a combination of the Bills probably being a little less talented than their 6-6 record would indicate, and the Colts being a little bit better than their 3-9 record indicates as well. Both teams are flawed, and those individual flaws have been picked apart by opponents throughout the season. It leads me to believe that this is going to be one of those grind it out games — especially with snow in the forecast — where one big play will be all the difference. What ultimately led me to pick the Colts in this game is what could be a general ineffectiveness — based on either an injured Tyrod Taylor or a chance-taking Nathan Peterman — to properly take advantage of this Colts secondary. If it’s Taylor starting, they’ll probably play everything short and dare him to throw it deep. If it’s Peterman, they’ll likely squat on routes because the quarterback makes quick decisions, but has shown a brief tendency to throw it behind his receivers on out routes — which led to one interception in Los Angeles and an almost interception against New England. There is a home advantage to speak of, but I’m favoring the more explosive offense to get the job done in this game — and as bad as it may look for Bills fans to see, the 3-9 Colts have some ability on that side of the ball and could easily outperform the Bills on offense. It’s going to be a tight game, but, I’ll hesitantly take the Colts to win outright.