The Buffalo Bills travel to Houston to face the Texans on Saturday in an AFC wild-card game. Here are some of the key individual matchups that likely will go a long way toward deciding the outcome.
The Bills' Josh Allen and the Texans' Deshaun Watson are both prone to playing "hero ball" too often, but one quarterback has been significantly better at it than the other.
While Allen is capable of making the important plays that often change games, he isn’t nearly as efficient as Watson is at producing them. Over the season, Watson has a Pro Football Focus grade of 81.0, which ranks just outside the top 10 despite a couple of ugly games. Allen is ranked 31st out of 39 qualifiers with a grade of 64.2.
Watson is tied for seventh in the league with 29 big-time throws (PFF’s highest-graded throws, typically further downfield or into tighter coverage). Allen has just 13, which ranks 27th and is just two more than Case Keenum, who only started 10 games.
When Allen has made those throws, they have been spectacular, but that masks how infrequently they have come. Allen has completed only 18 of his 68 deep pass attempts (throws of 20-plus yards) for four touchdowns and 589 yards, and he has recorded one of the worst adjusted completion rates in the NFL on such throws.
Watson has 33 completions on deep shots that have netted 11 touchdowns and more than 1,000 passing yards.
Both quarterbacks have played well in close games. In the fourth quarter with his team leading or trailing by seven points or less, Watson has completed more than 70% of his passes with four touchdowns and an interception. Allen's numbers in those situations: 57.1%, five touchdowns and no interceptions. Allen has eight TDs and no interceptions in the fourth quarter overall this season.
Allen has left too many plays on the table, but the playoffs present an opportunity to make amends with big plays at big moments.
Wide receivers and cornerbacks
One of the most enticing one-on-one matchups of wild-card weekend is Tre’Davious White going up against DeAndre Hopkins. Even in the simplest terms, something significant has to give.
White has allowed a passer rating of just 46.3 into his coverage this season, the best mark among full-time starters. He hasn’t surrendered a touchdown catch all season and has a combined 13 interceptions and pass breakups. Hopkins has the fourth-best PFF grade among wideouts; he has scored seven times, and Deshaun Watson has a passer rating of 107.8 when throwing his way.
Hopkins is one of the most physically imposing receivers in football. He relies more on size, physicality and body control than he does on quickness and route running. White, at 5-foot-11 and less than 200 pounds, is a relatively small cornerback, and that kind of physical mismatch could present an issue for him.
White's worst game statistically this season came against DeVante Parker (6-foot-3, 209 pounds), and a season ago, Hopkins was able to beat White for a touchdown, a couple of first downs and multiple penalties. Hopkins had receptions for 63 yards against the Bills, with two catches for 23 yards and a touchdown coming against White.
White undoubtedly has the coverage talent to go toe-to-toe with Hopkins, but he does have to overcome a physical disadvantage.
Texans' running game vs. Bills' run defense
The Texans want to be able to establish the run and rely on something other than Watson bailing them out. On paper, the Bills are vulnerable, but it’s a little more complicated than that when you dive into the numbers.
The Bills have allowed an explosive play (10-plus yards) on 14% of their run-defense snaps this season, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL, and on average, they allow 3.2 yards after contact per rush attempt, 28th among teams.
This doesn't mean that they are a fundamentally unsound run defense, however, as they are also giving up just 1.0 yards before contact per carry, tied for the fourth-best mark in the league.
Essentially, the Bills' defense has good fits against the run, and they get to the opposing running back better than most defenses do. What happens when they get there, though, is where the problem lies. The Bills have missed 158 tackles as a unit, the most in the NFL.
The Bills' run defense bottomed out in allowing 218 yards to the Eagles in Week 8, followed by 127 yards to Washington and 147 to Cleveland. Since, the Bills have allowed an average of 87.1 yards per game.
The battle to establish the run in this game comes down to whether the Bills can tighten up their tackling and take advantage of the fact they are playing fundamentally sound defense. Otherwise, their persistent missed-tackle issues will haunt them as they head to the offseason.