BBD Staff Writer: Eric Samulski
The push for the NFL playoffs has begun in earnest with Week 13 underway. It was a party that seemed to exclude the Buffalo Bills after they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 10, but after a win against the New York Jets in Week 11 and with losses by the Jets and Miami Dolphins in Week 12, the Bills are, even at 4-7, only one loss out of the AFC’s final playoff spot with one of the easiest schedules remaining among the nine teams in the wild card race.
The Buffalo Bills need to run the table for a realistic playoff push, however, so the quest for the postseason must start with a win against an Atlanta Falcons team that won 13 games and played in the NFC Championship last year. Injuries have ravaged them this year and led them to a disastrous 2-9 start, but they are still not a team the Bills should overlook.
Robert Woods and Stevie Johnson return from injury
The Bills got solid production from Marquise Goodwin and T.J. Graham in Week 11, who combined for eight catches and 155 yards as the starting wide receivers against the Jets, but quarterback EJ Manuel has to be happy to get his top two receivers back from injury in Week 13.
The returns of Woods and Johnson come at an opportunistic time, as the Falcons rank among the worst defenses in the NFL, having allowed twelve passes of 40 or more yards and 23 touchdowns through the air. Losing cornerback Brett Grimes to free agency has proven to be a subtraction too large for the Atlanta defense to make-up, and teams are beating the Falcons deep and in the middle of the field in most games. That should leave the emerging trio of Johnson, Woods and Goodwin with plenty of room to work.
With Johnson and Woods back to move the chains on intermediate routes, look for Manuel to try and hit a home run or two deep with Goodwin, his rookie deep threat.
The “Toronto Effect”
The Buffalo Bills have played one home game at the Rogers Centre in Toronto every year since 2008, but are only 1-4 in those games. While that statistic seems more indicative of the Bills’ recent struggles than anything else, it is not one to gloss over.
In the past couple of seasons, as hope for the Bills’ future has begun trickling back into Western New York, the crowds at Ralph Wilson Stadium have grown larger and louder, creating an actual home-field advantage for the team. Taking the game to Toronto diminishes that home-field advantage for the Bills, and makes this game more dangerous, as the “home” fans are likely to lose interest if the Bills get down early.
Falcons getting healthy, playing for jobs
The Falcons are not a team trying to tank. While the Jacksonville Jaguars, Oakland Raiders and Cleveland Browns are among the NFL teams who were never supposed to be good this season, the Falcons were supposed to compete for a championship
When teams fall so short of expectations, jobs are lost, so Mike Smith and Falcons players are playing to keep paychecks coming in. Additionally, as running back Steven Jackson and wide receiver Roddy White are beginning to get healthy, the struggling Falcons should have more fight than many assume.
Key Players Listed as Questionable
The Bills’ emerging defense got a dose of bad news Friday morning when defensive tackle Kyle Williams woke up with back spasms, an injury that has proven hard to overcome for many players around the NFL this season, but is especially troublesome for a 300-pound man who earns praise for his speed and quickness.
If Williams is unable to play Sunday, look for interior defensive lineman Alan Branch to see an increased role.
On the other sideline, Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez has been listed as questionable all week, but he returned to practice Thursday. Ryan would lose his most consistent weapon if Gonzalez is unable to play, but his practice participation, even if limited, is an indicator Gonzalez is likely to be ready to play.
Matchups to Watch
Tony Gonzalez vs. Kiko Alonso
With wide receiver Julio Jones out since Week 5 and White battling injuries all season, Gonzalez has been the Falcons’ most dynamic playmaking threat, totaling 58 catches for 611 yards and four touchdowns. Despite his age, Gonzalez continues to make plays over the middle and is one of the best red-zone targets in the league.
If the Falcons get inside the Bills’ 30-yard line, Gonzalez is likely going to be Ryan’s first look. Covering him should be the Bills defense’s top priority. If that is the case, the Bills could throw rookie linebacker Kiko Alonso at him first. A revelation in his first season, Alonso has 112 total tackles. He hasn’t had an interception or pass defensed since week four, but he is still an athletic, physical linebacker that should be able to keep up with Gonzalez in space.
Matt Ryan vs. Jairus Byrd
The normally cool and collected Ryan has been struggling of late, especially when the Falcons travel on the road. The Falcons quarterback has thrown nine interceptions in his last five games, and has thrown 11 of his 12 total interceptions this season on the road.
That’s music to the ears of Buffalo’s ball-hawking safety, Jairus Byrd. After a foot injury cost him his first five games of the season, Byrd is finally looking healthy, having secured three interceptions over the last two games.
Safeties who play for interceptions can often get beat deep, but Byrd has always taken advantage of mistakes rather than trying to force them on his own. If Ryan throws any errant passes Sunday, expect Byrd to be ready to pounce.
Playing in Toronto is a disadvantage for the Bills, who have been playing well at home this season, with a 3-3 record at the Ralph and a 1-4 record away from Orchard Park.
Nonetheless, I think the Bills are a hungry team that senses its opportunity. The Falcons have good talent still on their roster, but they have not been getting to the quarterback enough, ranking 29th with only 22 sacks this season. That is not a recipe for success against a Bills defense that puts a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and takes advantage of mistakes.
I think this game could be closer than expected, but the Bills can still pull out a win.
Bills 27, Falcons 20