Despite a phenomenal season from the 13-3 Buffalo Bills, they weren’t their usual selves in a surprisingly-close matchup with the 11-5 Indianapolis Colts in the wildcard round of the NFL playoffs.
While the Colts were down eleven points at one stage, they would not die against an excellent Bills team, consistently coming back within just a few points of the hosts. But when the game was on the line, on a ‘Hail Mary’ attempt into the end-zone, the Colts came up just short.
Though the Bills ultimately progressed, it was a narrow victory and perhaps not what they were expecting in the first game of the 2021 NFL playoffs.
An early slugfest
While each team’s first drives resulted in punts from their own territory, an early note was the fact that the Colts were able to force a three-and-out on the Bills’ first drive, with pressure from the Indianapolis front four – and Justin Houston, in particular – seeing MVP candidate Josh Allen throw the ball away to ensure a punt.
The Colts would be first to put points on the board, as two chunk plays from Philip Rivers to T.Y. Hilton and rookie receiver Michael Pittman Jr set up Rodrigo Blankenship’s 30-yard field goal.
The Bills kicked into gear in their second possession, as Allen continued his incredible run of form with a superb touchdown pass, flipping it over the offensive line to Dawson Knox, despite being under serious pressure from the Colts’ defensive line.
A few bruising runs from rookie running back Jonathan Taylor saw the rookie from Wisconsin punch in a touchdown from close range in the second quarter, seeing the Colts re-take the lead.
Perhaps an error from the Indianapolis offense was failing to convert a fourth-down chance from the Buffalo 4-yard line, as a pitch to Taylor was unsuccessful on third down, and a looping pass from Rivers on fourth down was out of reach for Pittman in the end-zone.
Despite the turnover on downs seeing the Bills begin their possession at their own 4-yard line, they drove 96 yards down the field and Allen ran it home to give the Bills a halftime lead. The possession had seen Colts’ reserve defensive back Isiah Rodgers intercept a pass in the end-zone, but a review overturned the decision and brought it back for the Bills.
The second half began with a nice drive from the Bills as they stormed down the field, but stalled inside the Colts’ territory and were forced to kick a field goal, taking a seven-point lead early in the third quarter.
With the ball in hand, the Colts had to find points from somewhere in order to keep pace with the electric Bills offense, but a field goal attempt from 33 yards bounced off both uprights, keeping the AFC South runners-up seven points behind the hosts.
The Bills were content to methodically drive down the field to close out the third quarter, with the last period of the game beginning with the ball in the hands of the hosts.
Though the Colts challenged a call at midfield that could have given them a fumble recovery, it wasn’t really close to being overturned – and their mistakes were punished by Allen’s deep throw to All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who burned cornerback T.J. Carrie en-route to a touchdown.
With the Colts now down fourteen points, recovering was their main priority, and two strong runs from Taylor and Nyheim Hines saw them enter the red-zone, and a nine-yard pass to Zach Pascal saw the Colts finally score, bringing Frank Reich’s side back within a shout. However, an odd decision to try for two points after the touchdown was unsuccessful, ensuring the gap between the two sides remained at eight.
A field goal from rookie kicker Tyler Bass put the Bills even further in front, putting serious pressure on the Colts to score on their next drive.
A tense finale
And score they did, as Rivers threw a dart of a touchdown pass to tight end Jack Doyle, who was wide open in the left of the end-zone. Rivers went back to Doyle, this time on a two-point attempt, converting the pass in order to create a three-point game.
With the Bills needing points in order to finish the Colts off, the Indianapolis defence had other ideas. A sack from Denico Autry forced the ball loose and pushed the ball back 23 yards, with the Colts perfectly positioned to force a defensive stop. Indianapolis got the ball back with a punt inside the Bills’ fifteen-yard line, and the Colts had two minutes to save their season.
A fourth-down pass to Pascal saw the ball punched out; originally called down by contact, the refereeing called that the call would stand and the Colts would continue their drive, a hugely controversial call.
The refs ruled this no fumble, did they get it right?— PFF (@PFF) January 9, 2021
However, the Colts forced themselves into a fourth-and-eleven with four seconds to go, but the eventual ‘Hail Mary’ attempt was knocked away just before the end-zone, and Buffalo progressed into the divisional round.
The Bills move on to the divisional round of the playoffs, while the Colts now turn their attention to the offseason, with contracts of Rivers, Hilton and Houston up for re-negotiation.