Bills at Jaguars: Two playoff-hungry franchises finally return to the postseason table

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

Buffalo Bills (9-7) at Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)
Sunday, 1:05 p.m. ET on CBS

BILLS AT A GLANCE

Key player: RB LeSean McCoy. McCoy suffered an ankle sprain at the worst possible time: in the regular-season finale. McCoy didn’t practice on Wednesday or Thursday, though he did tell reporters the injury “wasn’t as bad as I thought” when it first happened. Buffalo coach Sean McDermott said Friday morning that McCoy would do “some things” in the team’s final practice before the trip to Jacksonville, and that the team would go from there. If McCoy plays, he obviously won’t be 100 percent, but he’s still a dynamic player. The 29-year-old totaled 1,586 yards from scrimmage with eight total touchdowns, the fourth year in the last five he’s been over 1,100 rushing yards and 1,400 yards from scrimmage. But the Bills will be a different offense without him, and the Jaguars’ defense didn’t do nearly as well against the run (116.3 yards per game allowed) as they did the pass this season.

Why they’ll win: Las Vegas certainly doesn’t believe the Bills will win – they’re 7.5 point underdogs. If the Bills are going to leave Jacksonville with a win, they’ll have to go back to basics: take care of the ball and create turnovers. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor had just four interceptions in 15 starts, and the Bills had 16 total giveaways, one of the lower numbers in the NFL this season. If the defense refound the early-season swagger and skill that had them ranked as the best-scoring unit in the league and near the top in several other key statistics, that would go a long way toward improving their chances. And maybe the Titans Jurrell Casey is right: get pressure on Jaguars’ quarterback Blake Bortles and put his team behind on the scoreboard and he’ll choke.

Why they’ll lose: Looking at this matchup, it’s a lot easier to come up with reasons why Buffalo might lose than while they’ll win. The Bills’ defense really did fall off, and that’s troubling when you’re facing the No. 1 rushing offense in the NFL this season and you finished 29th against the run. Taylor doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but he doesn’t seem capable of putting the team on his back, either – he didn’t throw for 300 yards or more than two touchdowns in any game, which doesn’t bode well if the Bills are without McCoy. And Buffalo was just 3-5 on the road this season.

Keep in mind: Buffalo had to finish strong to stay in playoff contention, and it did that, winning three of its last four. The teams the Bills beat, Miami (twice) and Indianapolis – have already begun their offseasons, but the Bills needed to win and they did. And the energy we’ve seen from Western New York this week from the team’s fans after they made the postseason for the first time since 1999, could help overcome whatever deficiencies they have against Jacksonville.

Listen up: the Jaguars need quarter back Blake Bortles to play well, even if Jacksonville isn’t leading by a large margin against Buffalo. (AP)

JAGUARS AT A GLANCE

Key player: QB Blake Bortles. Bortles is having the best season of his career, but he’s a bit of a front-runner: he was able to hold onto significant leads, but wasn’t at his best in the Jaguars’ close games. He had just three interceptions total in the Jaguars’ 10 wins, but 10 in the six losses, including five over Jacksonville’s final two games, losses on the road to San Francisco and Tennessee. If the game is close after two or three quarters, Bortles has to respond, not fold.

Why they’ll win: The defense. The city and team have been running with the “Sacksonville” nickname for the team this season – the Jaguars totaled 55 in the regular season, second only to the Steelers’ 56. Free-agent signee Calais Campbell has helped transform the front, but on the back end, there are two Pro Bowl cornerbacks. If McCoy can’t play, it’s easy to see the Jaguars’ defenders just pinning their ears back and gunning for Taylor on almost every snap.

Why they’ll lose: If the Bills can keep things close and hound Bortles, he may not respond. As noted, he was at his best when Jacksonville was leading; when they were in close games or trailed, Bortles made his mistakes. Two weeks ago, in San Francisco, he was intercepted by Dontae Johnson, who returned the pick 50 yards, giving the 49ers a 16-0 lead; late in the game, with Jacksonville pulling close, he was intercepted on the first play of a drive, in his own territory, and the 49ers quickly turned that turnover into points too, shutting the door on a Jacksonville comeback.

Keep in mind: The Jaguars have spent wisely both on- and off-field, bringing in players like Campbell, committing to their own picks, like linebacker Telvin Smith, and getting Tom Coughlin back into the organization. It’s all led to a quick turnaround. But the Jaguars aren’t coming into the postseason on a strong note, having lost their last two games, and will need to be strong out of the gate in the team’s first playoff game in a decade.

OUTLOOK

The enthusiasm shown by Bills players when they learned they’d clinched a playoff spot, ending the franchise’s long drought, the kindness shown by #BillsMafia in donating to Andy Dalton’s foundation as a thanks to the Bengals quarterback for helping get them here, the excitement even non-Bills followers have shown at Buffalo being in the playoffs has all be great. But it could all go away quickly if the Jaguars jump out to a big lead and the defense is able to tee off against the Bills’ offense. Jacksonville has gotten a spark from its team’s resurgence, and will be fighting hard against the franchise’s status as one of the NFL’s laughingstocks.

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