Three things on my mind as the Bills get ready to play for a spot in the AFC Championship…
Third and Everything
The Bills have the best third down offense in the league. The Ravens are the best overall third down team in the league–Baltimore is 4th on offense and 2nd on defense. (Buffalo is a very respectable 13th in the NFL defensively on third downs).
Control third down and you control this game.
If the Bills convert on third downs, they’re scoring points. They’re probably taking a lead. Baltimore does not want to be trailing big in this game. They came back from ten points down against Tennessee last weekend, but it was the first time a Lamar Jackson led team rallied from a double digit deficit at any point in the game.
If the Ravens convert on third down, they are probably going on long, time consuming drives. They’re keeping Josh Allen off the field. The Colts darn near picked off Buffalo last week with the same game plan.
Obviously, success on third down is a big deal every game. For this one, it’s also winning on something that the other team has won on all year. When a building block of season success crumbles, a team often gets eliminated.
The Secret Sauce
Jackson won an MVP last year, but he didn’t really much play like one against the Bills. Buffalo was the only team all year that held Jackson under 200 combined yards.
I went back through my All-22 coaches’ film notes from that game and noticed that the players who shined the most are no longer in Buffalo. Shaq Lawson left for Miami. Star Lotulelei was a Covid opt out. Lorenzo Alexander retired. (Trent Murphy played well, too. Save the season finale against Miami, he hasn’t been active since the bye. I think he probably will be for this game.)
The question now is whether the success against Jackson was due to Sean McDermott’s scheme or his defensive personnel. I think it’s more the latter.
Multiple Bills have mentioned that reviewing the film and/or seeing Jackson in person last season will be a big help. Matt Milano went so far as to say the Bills are “confident” they could contain Jackson. Walking into a game with swag against a star like Jackson is half the battle.
Micah Hyde also said something that has resonated with me more as we get closer to this game. He said a defense going against Jackson has to “play fast”. Veterans typically play faster than young or new guys because they’ve been around the league and the defensive scheme for a few years. They don’t have to think. They can just react.
Outside of A.J. Epenesa and a couple second year players, this Bills defense is veteran laden. They will play fast. They will have great look at slowing down the reigning MVP down.
Hang On To The Dang Ball
When the Ravens play, the ball ends up on the ground. A lot. Baltimore has fumbled 25 times and their opponents have fumbled 33 times. That’s almost four fumbles per game. It’s laughably the most in the NFL.
What the Bills must be most concerned about is starting corners Marlon Humphrey and Marcus Peters. The two have caused 12 fumbles by themselves. Humphrey has eight! These aren’t linebackers or defensive tackles who are close to the ball on nearly every snap. These are corners.
The other concern for the Bills is Allen. Baltimore forced two fumbles from him last season and recovered one that led to a short field TD. It was one of the big reasons the Ravens won despite Jackson’s worst day of the year. Allen also darn near gave away the Wild Card round win against Indy with a fumble.
The Ravens don’t have a ton of paths to a win in this game, but forcing a few turnovers is always one of them.
This is the only divisional round game matching teams that both have at least a four game win streak going. The Ravens have won six in a row. The Bills have won seven straight. The best month of the year for both teams has been, by far, the last month. I don’t think either team is capable of a stinker Saturday night. This is going to be a well played game and it’s going to be close.
If my name started with an “F” and we did “Four Things”, I would have discussed the Ravens heavy blitzing scheme. It’s been much discussed that Allen has some of the NFL’s best numbers against the blitz, but Pittsburgh also shut the Bills down for a half with a similar scheme and they did it without their best corner (Joe Haden). The Ravens D should be at full strength Saturday night. Their blitz can cause the Bills problems.
I think the difference in this game is two-fold. First, the 21st century NFL is built for the better passing team to win. The team with more passing yards in the regular season went 9-2 in the 2018 playoffs, 6-1 in the last three rounds of the playoffs last year and 4-2 in the wild card round this year. The Bills are absolutely the better 21st century team.
Second, there are more types of games the Bills can win. Buffalo can bury a team if they get up early. They have the offense to rally late. They can win 37-34 and 20-17. Baltimore is probably not winning a shootout and they’re probably not winning from two touchdowns behind.
For whatever it’s worth, the Bills will also have 6,700 fans doing all they can to make Baltimore’s night a hard one. It’s not nothing. I can’t promise Bills fans will avoid a heart attack, but I do think they’ll be very happy when the clock strikes midnight. Give me the Bills heading back to the AFC Championship with a 24-19 win.