Well, eventually we’ll bare witness to the wild card showdown between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Buffalo Bills where Pittsburgh will try to win its first playoff game since the 2016 season. In advance of their playoff matchup, I sat down with Matthew Byham of Buffalo Rumblings to discuss the Bills, and what to expect on Monday.
1. How much will Gabe Davis’ absence affect the Bills’ offense
That’s a great question. If stats and the eye test are to be believed, it won’t matter as much as those outside Bills Mafia believe to be the case. Davis is such an interesting, difficult-to-peg player for the Bills. His ceiling may be as high as someone like Mike Evans, though his floor is dangerously close to that of N’Keal Harry. It’s not that he’s not talented. It’s that he lacks consistency. Plus, he seems to have gotten way off-page with Josh Allen this season, resulting in plenty of missed opportunities (see: OT EZ incompletion that would have won the game; Week 18 at Dolphins, similar play, this time ending in INT).
People claim that all he does is drop the ball, but that’s false. He’s a player who seems to thrive on rhythm, and he saw very little opportunity to establish it in 2023. He had more games than anyone would like down the stretch where he had zero catches on zero targets, and still more where he saw targets but failed to haul in most or any footballs. His ability isn’t unlike that of Robert Woods, and that’s especially true when it comes to his role as a blocking receiver. His work there has been a boon for Buffalo’s YAC numbers.
So how will his absence affect the Bills? I suspect more than almost anyone is willing to admit — because of the weather and the potential for a run-heavy scheme that could require more blocking, and some of the exotic variety. The passing game shouldn’t suffer a great deal simply because wide receiver Khalil Shakir has stepped up this season, and there’s always rookie tight end Dalton Kincaid or running back James Cook to catch passes.
2. In your opinion, what has been the biggest key for Buffalo’s five-game win streak?
The play of the defense. Heading into the bye, the Bills were 6-6 and at a crossroads. That game to push them down to .500 was against the Philadelphia Eagles — a team very much not yet in decline. The offense seemed to have found its groove again, but the defense once more let up and allowed the Eagles to fight back for the win in OT. Early on in the season — and also late — Buffalo’s offense started games slow, really failing to move the ball consistently until just before halftime. Once injuries began to pile up on defense by Week 5, it was obvious that there’d be a learning curve with reserves and street signings playing significant snaps. There was, and it reared its head in end-of-game situations when they couldn’t stop teams like the New England Patriots from marching down the field for game-deciding scores.
Out of the bye, it was clear the switch had been flipped. In a tough win at Arrowhead Stadium, the Bills’ defense stopped the Kansas City Chiefs — who only needed a field goal to tie for OT. Of course that was the game where Kadarius Toney didn’t know how to properly line up, resulting in a trick-play touchdown for naught. But what most don’t realize is that the Chiefs had opportunities after that play to gain the 15 yards needed thanks to penalty. Buffalo’s defense simply didn’t allow them those 15 yards, and kept them out of even field goal range. Where before the defense had proven detrimental to victory due to late collapses, they were now finding ways to ensure a win in crunch time.
3. The weather will play a large factor in this game. How much does it worry you in terms of affecting Josh Allen and the passing game?
Josh Allen is such an X-factor. Sure, the weather will limit some of his “wow” throws, but I don’t expect it to hinder his ability to ad-lib. I believe it will affect Allen less than it will his targets.
Obviously the game has been postponed, and we’re expected to see things decided in much more “seasonable” weather.
That said, it’s still going to look like winter and behave like such when they kick off (whenever that ends up being — still not confident Monday will stick). But without a Buffalo Hurricane to contend with, Josh Allen shouldn’t have to modify his play all that much.
Interestingly, the five-game winning streak to end the regular season didn’t feature a robust passing game. In those five weeks Allen threw for 233 (at Chiefs), 94 (vs. Cowboys), 237 (at Chargers), 169 (vs. Patriots), and then a season-ending / typical Allen-Dolphins total of 369. Since interim offensive coordinator Joe Brady took over, there’s been a greater commitment to running the ball and playing complementary football.
As Steelers fans understand, a stout running game takes a ton of pressure and responsibility off the passing game. Part of me wonders if the Bills were preparing themselves for winter, and not just trying to diversify the offense for the regular season.
4. Even with the weather, how much of a confidence boost is it to not have to face T.J. Watt?
Huge for fans. For the Bills? I’d imagine it’s the similar, but they probably have more concern about the players stepping up to fill his shoes and those around who will try to absorb some of his production and responsibility. You’re not on an NFL roster if you can’t cut it, usually.
Alex Highsmith is certainly a player to worry about, even if he hasn’t been as productive this season. Then there’s Cam Heyward, who’s among the best at his position. You know this, but trust that many outsiders know the Steelers run deeper than Watt — but that Watt also enhances the ability of his teammates to do what they do well.
5. The Bills are nine point favorites according to DraftKings. Do they cover the spread?
This is a tough one to gauge. I’d like to believe that yes, they will. History, albeit brief, has shown us that seven seeds facing two seeds haven’t fared well (again, in only six games). They’ve gone 0-6 and suffered an average margin of defeat of 12.2 points.
The question to consider is how many of those games featured the same sort of weather that’s expected to blanket Orchard Park, NY, even with a delay for “better” weather? That right there gives me pause. In a game where the over/under point total is 33.5, nine points is a huge margin.
I’d actually take the under in this game, even without considering weather. Yes, so much depends on a force no one can do anything about, but that holds true regarding those on-field forces that both teams understand of each other.
Still, those of us who know what life near a Great Lake is like in winter, understand that weather models can and often do change every 10 minutes. I won’t be surprised if Thunder Snow makes its way toward Highmark Stadium.