We don’t normally write about sports in the pages of the Rochester Beacon. Yet it would be hard to argue—especially in this era of fragmented interests and viewing habits—that there is a more widespread shared experience among Rochesterians than Bills fandom.
And in many ways, we have needed this Buffalo Bills season more than ever. Something to root for and to look forward to each weekend. A blossoming story of perseverance and success that has put Western and Upstate New York in the national spotlight.
Given all that, many of us have been anxiously evaluating the Bills’ chances against the Baltimore Ravens this Saturday in the Divisional Round of the AFC playoffs. Admittedly, I had been rooting for the Steelers last weekend, assuming that the Steelers would subsequently fall apart against the Bills. But the Steelers decided to fall apart a week prematurely, and instead we get the surging Ravens coming to Buffalo.
There is no doubt that the Ravens represent a real challenge for the Bills. They are second best in the NFL in points per game allowed, and lead the league in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. They also have one of the most dynamic quarterbacks in the league with reigning NFL MVP Lamar Jackson, whose scrambling prowess has helped the Ravens to lead the league in yards per rushing attempt.
It will likely be a close game, much like the Bills’ Wild Card game against the Indianapolis Colts. But when the dust settles, I believe that the Bills will prevail for the following combination of reasons:
The Bills are unusually healthy
It was unfortunate to see running back Zack Moss’ season-ending ankle injury last weekend, and to see wide receiver Cole Beasley playing through a knee injury that will likely still be affecting him against the Ravens. Losing Moss is not insignificant, but Devin Singletary getting more carries—in combination with some contributions from rookie Antonio Williams or veteran T.J. Yeldon—will fill in adequately. Additionally, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll is likely to further compensate for Moss’ absence by calling more designed runs and zone-read running plays for quarterback Josh Allen. Daboll was already doing this against the Colts last week, enabling Allen to showcase his improvisational and athletic skills and making him the team’s leading rusher with 54 yards.
Beasley again will not be at full strength. But even as he hobbled around last week, he still managed to snag seven receptions, and he can likely replicate that productivity level again this week. More importantly, wide receiver Stefon Diggs appears to have largely recovered from the oblique injury that was limiting him recently. And with the full return of veteran John Brown and the continuing emergence of rookie Gabriel Davis (how amazing were those toe-tapping sideline catches against the Colts?!), the Bills are in great shape at the wide receiver position.
In contrast, the Ravens’ offensive line still seems affected by the absence of left tackle Ronnie Stanley, who went down in Week 8. That seemed on display against the Titans last week as the Ravens gave up five sacks.
The Ravens’ recent “momentum” was largely against lackluster teams
Conventional wisdom holds that the Bills and the Ravens are both among the hottest teams coming into the playoffs, in that both had late-season winning streaks. But there are substantial differences between what each team accomplished this season.
Yes, the Ravens won their last five regular season games. But four of those opponents ended up with losing seasons: Cowboys (6-10), Jaguars (1-15), Giants (6-10) and Bengals (4-11). The Ravens did also beat out the Browns by 5 points during that late-season streak. But of the Ravens’ 11 victories this year, only three came against teams with winning records (they beat the Browns twice, and the Colts in Week 9). In short, the Ravens did not beat any team as talented as the Bills.
In contrast, the Bills did not only head into the playoffs on a six-game win streak. Six of their victories this season have come against quality opponents, including impressive wins over the Seahawks, Rams, Steelers and Dolphins (twice).
And notably, Allen performs particularly well against top-ranking defenses. This season he is undefeated in four games against top-10 defenses, with a 109.9 passer rating. Neither he nor his offense will be overwhelmed by the task in front of them.
A true home-field advantage
Several things are noteworthy here. The Bills were 7-1 at home during the regular season. Jackson—who grew up in South Florida—has never played football in the snow, and (as of this writing) there is a 40 percent chance of snow at game time. Even if it doesn’t snow, it will likely be 20-something degrees, which would also be an unusual experience for Jackson and the Ravens.
Finally, it’s clear that even having just 6,700 Bills Mafia present last weekend made a huge difference, and the presence of another small but loud crowd will again amp up the Bills. When things are otherwise close, playing in front of the home crowd often brings out that something extra.
It will be a back-and-forth battle between two electrifying offenses. Allen will need to continue his recent level of play and the Bills defense will need to step up, particularly against the Ravens’ running game.
But when all is said and done, the Bills are the better team and are more likely to keep their “team of destiny” moniker moving forward.
Final score prediction: Bills 31 – Ravens 27.
Alex Zapesochny is Rochester Beacon publisher.