It’s been a long wait to get to this point for fans of the Buffalo Bills, but at long last, it’s here.
The Bills will compete in a playoff game — for the first time in a day under 18 years — on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars. And to top it all off, they’re going up against Doug Marrone, the very head coach that elected to opt out from his contract with the Bills on December 31, 2014, and is now the head man in Jacksonville.
This game is rife with storylines, intrigue, and is clearly the top draw for the AFC duo of games on Wild Card weekend.
Now, for the first time ever in my ‘5 things to watch’ preview column — which has been a weekly feature for roughly six or seven years now — five things to watch in the Buffalo Bills’ playoff game against the Jacksonville Jaguars:
1) How much LeSean McCoy?
- Based on what we’ve seen throughout the week, and just the way it’s trending, I feel incredibly confident that LeSean McCoy will at the very least be active on Sunday. Unless he completely gets set back somehow in pregame warmups, I’m expecting him to be in uniform on Sunday. If you’ve listened to him over the years, there’s no way he lets something that he practiced through on Friday keep him on the sidelines in his first playoff game with the Bills. The bigger questions at this point are this: How much will he play, and how effective will he be? If I had to guess in the best case scenario, I’m thinking McCoy will be out there somewhere between 50 and 60-percent of the offensive snaps. That’s below his normal snap percentage, which was at 70.14-percent before the game against Miami. If the injury slows him down in any way — considering how he referenced the game in Miami in 2016 when he played on an injured hamstring and in his words, hurt the team — that percentage could obviously go down to allow a fully healthy Mike Tolbert and Marcus Murphy to play. As for effectiveness, a big part of his game is bouncing in and out of his movements — and it seemed like he was moving pretty well on it during practice on Friday. We’ll know pretty early on if McCoy is close to his normal ability because he and the Bills will want to know as quickly as possible. Either way, I’m expecting to see quite a bit of Murphy on Sunday, with Tolbert mixed in — to try and avoid the humongous defensive line up the middle and to try and beat the Jaguars to the outside. No matter the runner, it’s going to be tough sledding for the Bills’ rushing attack.
2) Making the Jaguars go Full Bortles
- The formula for the Bills to win this game against the Jaguars has a clear-as-day mission. They must make Jacksonville quarterback Blake Bortles a big part of their day on offense. The Jaguars are clearly content to run Leonard Fournette and company all game if they’re in control, which isn’t really the best omen from a coaching staff’s opinion of their own starting quarterback. Bortles had a nice stretch of games but has crashed back to Earth in the last two weeks by turning the ball over five times. That fact is the Bills’ greatest source of optimism in this game. Throughout the 2017 season, the secondary has shown an incredible knack for picking the ball off in key moments of games and they’re probably going to try and confuse Bortles as much as possible. The means of obtaining their ‘Full Bortles’ mission will be something the Jaguars have seen all season: a stacked box to try and limit Fournette’s effectiveness on the ground. If they can do that, the chances for turnovers improves dramatically. And while Bortles does have some solid receivers in Keelan Cole, Dede Westbrook, and Marqise Lee (if he plays) that bails him out, when he’s left to his own devices in the pocket for too long, bad things happen. As long as the Bills provide enough of a pass rush between three and four seconds from the start of the snap, just to get Bortles a little panicky, it could mean the difference between an interception and an incompletion — and ultimately, a win or a loss.
3) Jacksonville’s pass defense is no joke
- The Buffalo Bills have struggled all season long to be a consistent passing attack, no matter if it’s been Tyrod Taylor or (briefly) Nathan Peterman at the helm. This is as horrific a matchup as it gets for the Bills to try and jumpstart their passing game in the playoffs. Led by superstar cornerback Jalen Ramsey and his just-as-good partner-in-crime A.J. Bouye, their secondary has mostly eliminated any lingering thought from opponents that they’d be able to have a lot of success through the air. When you combine that with the pass rush from both the edges and the interior of the defensive line, along with the super fast duo of outside linebackers to help avoid Taylor taking off when nothing is open, the Bills won’t be finding anything easy on Sunday.
4) Fournette’s style and Milano’s injury is a bad combination
- Now, it’s pretty clear that that the Bills need to make the Jaguars go ‘Full Bortles’ on Sunday, but to do that, they have to have a combination of the lead, along with a healthy ability to limit the Jacksonville rushing attack. However, it’s much easier said than done. The Bills will be going up against one of the most talented running backs they’ve seen all season long in Leonard Fournette — which means the challenge will be an immense one. Plus, the Bills have struggled quite a bit to limit rushers right through the middle of the defense, and that’s the crux of Fournette’s blend of size, speed, and pure power. Likely working in Buffalo’s favor will be them selling out to stop Fournette and the fact that the runner has been limited to just 117 yards over the last two weeks. However, not working in the Bills’ favor is the hamstring injury to rookie weakside linebacker Matt Milano. He didn’t practice at all this week, and while the Bills are still holding on to hope for him to play, head coach Sean McDermott admitted that it would be “a challenge” for him to play on Sunday. That’s a huge loss, considering he has been the best linebacker on the team this season, and their run defense wasn’t nearly as leaky with him in the lineup as opposed to Ramon Humber. Milano’s injury would put Humber back into the lineup, and would likely give even more credence to needing to stack the box against the Jaguars — as if they wouldn’t have done that anyway.
5) Getting an early lead
- Stopping the run and forcing turnovers are two things that are incredibly important to the Bills coming away victorious this weekend, but the direct line to getting them to do both of those things? Getting an early lead in the game. Now, based on the data from this year, this will be where an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. The unstoppable force (or in this case, completely stoppable), is the Bills lack of ability to score points in the first quarter. They’ve only scored 40 points all year long in the first quarter — an average of 2.5 points per game in the first quarter this season. Now, the immovable object (or in this case, completely movable) is the Jaguars almost complete inability to come back from a deficit greater than a field goal. In seven games that they have trailed their opponents between 4 and 7 points at any stage of the game, the Jaguars are 1-6 on the season. And we’re not talking about huge leads or anything along those lines, the Jaguars genuinely do not perform well if they are facing a deficit by more than a field goal. The trouble is, the same goes for the Bills, who have a record of 2-5 in that same category as well. The Bills have been a lot better lately at getting started offensively early in the game through the last month of the season, which will be vital to their success in the game. Getting out to a lead of a touchdown — or perhaps even more, can swing the odds in their favor based on the evidence from the Jaguars this season. Offensive coordinator Rick Dennison better have something special lined up for the first 15 plays — because if they convert early on, that also could make all the difference in how the Jaguars and Bills approach the rest of the game.
OUT: CB Shareece Wright
QUESTIONABLE: RB LeSean McCoy, WLB Matt Milano, WR Deonte Thompson, RT Jordan Mills, QB/WR Joe Webb
QUESTIONABLE: WR Marqise Lee, RB T.J. Yeldon, TE James O’Shaughnessy
Prediction: Bills over Jaguars
- It’s just a feeling in the gut that won’t go away — I think the Bills are going to win this game. The Bills are coming into this game full of confidence and with quite literally nothing to lose. The Jaguars are coming in with losses in their last two games and with the number of turnovers he’s committed in that time, perhaps a quarterback with a bit of a shaken confidence going into his first ever start in the playoffs. Make no mistake, this game is going to be an all-out struggle between these two sides. The Jaguars defense is incredible, and the Bills are likely to load the box against Leonard Fournette to try and make Blake Bortles be the one that beats them, in an effort to manufacture turnovers and shortened fields for the offense. I get a distinct feeling that this one might just be a field goal frenzy. The first one to 18 — if one team even gets there — will probably win the game. With the Bills likely to completely sell out against the run, I like the chances of Buffalo’s playmaking secondary to make a play or two which will likely put them in a great spot to score points — and that’s the biggest reason why I think they will win. I wouldn’t rule out the impact of the return game in this one, either. A big punt return could make the difference in this game. It will likely be a low-scoring, ugly game — but one that I believe will yield the franchise’s first postseason victory since late December of 1995.