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Red Zone Play: Defense Wins Championships & Wild Cards?

Houston’s 13th ranked offense squares off against Buffalo’s 3rd ranked defense.

Houston Texans v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Will Vragovic/Getty Images

Some things grow, evolve, and transform over time. Some things never change. In certain instances, variables are simply anachronisms, locked in an old school way of doing things. We’re going to see just that this weekend when the Buffalo Bills come to NRG Stadium to kick off the 2019 NFL Playoffs.

Bill O’Brien’s old school, up the gut, establish-the-run-to-set-up-the-pass style of offense versus the multiple look, disguised zone blitz style of defense the Bills feature. Unfortunately for Houston fans, Buffalo is better at what they do than O’Brien is at first down A-Gap running.

The Bills’ defense is one of only three this season to hold opponents under 300 yards per game (298.2). They’re sixth in the league in first downs given up, surrendering only 18.4 per game. Buffalo’s third down efficiency is at 36%. They’ve given up just 259 points all season long (an average of only 16.2 points per game).

That’s one tough, smash mouth defense.

How do you overcome a defense like that? With more old school adages—use their aggressiveness against them and play mistake-free football. If Deshaun Watson is playing up to his capabilities, which he often does when he hits the big stage, and the Texans’ wide receivers can create quick separation, the quick passing game is a perfect antidote to an aggressive defense. That will have to complement a smash-mouth run game led by Carlos Hyde, Houston’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Arian Foster. Buffalo’s run defense is stout, finishing tenth in the league with 1,649 yards against. The wrinkle is the average rushing yards per play is 4.3 yards per attempt, which is actually in the lower half of the NFL this year, coming in at 18th best.

All these numbers and scenarios are built in a trench war that will most assuredly come down to the Texans’ rebuilt offensive line versus the Bills multi-faceted front seven and Buffalo’s line versus a returning J.J. Watt and friends.

While this all sounds a bit doom and gloom for the Texans, if the x-factors go their way, this game is very winnable despite the challenges Buffalo presents.

X-factor #1: J.J. Watt

Is he really healthy? Is he rusty? Is he anywhere near “J.J. Watt” form? If the answer is yes to all three of these questions, then Houston’s defense suddenly looks a lot different. Guys like Whitney Mercilus, D.J. Reader and Jacob Martin suddenly get a lot more formidable and a patchwork secondary suddenly has more opportunities to shine. As of this writing, Watt has not officially been cleared to play.

X-factor #2: Will Fuller V

It’s no secret the Texans’ offense goes from good to great with Fuller on the field. It’s also no secret Fuller is rarely on the field at full strength. If Fuller is good to go, the Bills cannot afford to give him free reign while DeAndre Hopkins, Kenny Stills, and Darren Fells are also roaming the gridiron.

X-Factor #3: Deshaun Watson

Watson has been struggling with back problems all season since landing awkwardly on a touchdown run earlier this year. Anyone who’s ever had a back injury understands how if affects everything. Is this something a week off has healed or will it limit Watson this weekend?

If all these things fall the Texans’ way, they’ll be moving on to the AFC Divisional Round to face stiffer competition. However, the Texans have the distinction of being the only team in the NFL to defeat both the Kansas City Chiefs and New England Patriots this season. How sweet would it be to knock Brady and the Pats out of the NFL Playoffs? For that to happen, they’ll have to likely take out the Baltimore Ravens first - which is a discussion for another day.

What do you think? Have an idea for how Houston can take out the Bills? Think they can do it without a healthy trio fo Watson, Watt and Fuller?