Bills vs. Jaguars: AFC Wild Card Weekend preview

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The Backstory


It's been a long time between postseason appearances for both teams. Sunday will mark 17 years and 6,574 days -- the longest active playoff drought across the four major U.S. sports -- since the Bills fell to the Titans in the infamous Music City Miracle. Jacksonville, meanwhile, has gone nearly a decade (3,648 days) without a tournament appearance.

That's not the only common DNA between the two organizations. Jaguars head man Doug Marrone guided Buffalo to 15 wins over 2013 and 2014 before a clause in his contract prompted him to opt out as a rare coaching free agent upon new owner Terry Pegula's purchase of the Bills. Miscalculating his market, Marrone was forced to toil in obscurity as assistant head coach/offensive line coach in Jacksonville until Gus Bradley's firing afforded him a two-game audition that led to the permanent job last January.

The Bills will also be gazing across the sideline at behemoth run-stuffer Marcell Dareus, whom the new regime traded to Marrone's club in late October. Since the two-time Pro Bowler changed addresses, Buffalo's run defense has slumped to 31st in the league while Jacksonville's lone weakness on defense was shored up.

That interconnected relationship is where the similarities end, however. On paper, this is one of the most lopsided bouts in recent wild-card round history.

While Sean McDermott's squad is riding high on the momentum of a dramatic playoff tie-breaker that vaulted them past the Ravens and into the NFL's second season, the Bills rank last among playoff teams in most key metrics. The more complete Jaguars, on the other hand, are averaging 63.3 more yards gained and 69.0 fewer yards allowed than the Bills.

Armed with the league's dominant defense, Jacksonville is "as dangerous" as any team in the playoffs, NFL Network analyst Nate Burleson opined on Good Morning Football.

Players to Watch


Blake Bortles, QB, Jaguars

Titans defensive tackle Jurrell Casey made waves this week when he predicted that Bortles is "going to choke" as long as the outcome is in his hands.

What led Casey to that conclusion -- beyond last year's disastrous Bortles performance? The Jaguars are the NFL's great frontrunners, with a formula for success that relies heavily upon jumping out to an early lead. As long as the Jags don't fall behind, the swarming pass rush can pin its ears back and harass opposing quarterbacks while the offense can hide its own shaky signal-caller in a run-oriented attack.

Is the criticism fair? Bortles averages a sterling 8.0 yards per attempt with a 107.3 passer rating and a 12:1 TD-to-INT ratio when asked to nurse a lead this season. When the game is tied or the Jaguars are trailing, his numbers plummet to 6.5 yards per attempt, with a passer rating below 75.0 and nine touchdowns versus 12 interceptions.

We saw Bortles lead the NFL in passer rating over a three-week stretch in early December, only to stumble to the finish line with five interceptions in a pair of season-ending losses. The most disturbing sign was a regression to the faulty mechanics that led to a disastrous 2016 season.

If Bortles channels early-December form, his team has a chance to embark on a deep playoff run. If his technique doesn't improve, though, the Bills will have success loading the box to stop the run and forcing Bortles to test his luck against their ballhawking secondary.

LeSean McCoy, RB, Bills

The importance of McCoy to the Bills' chances of pulling off an upset can't be overstated. Not only the lynchpin of Buffalo's imposing ground attack, the six-time Pro Bowler also leads the team in targets (77) and receptions (59) while ranking second in receiving yards (448). The fulcrum on which the entire offense pivots, McCoy is responsible for the third-highest percentage (31.1) of his team's output this season. No other player on the team came within 1,000 of McCoy's 1,586 yards from scrimmage.

With a healthy McCoy and an elusive Tyrod Taylor, the Bills could place plenty of stress on a Jacksonville run defense that ranks just 21st this season. If McCoy's ankle sprain doesn't miraculously heal by Sunday, though, this team is facing a severe manpower shortage after watching a cadre of productive veterans such as Sammy Watkins, Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin and Mike Gillislee walk out the door since the end of last season.

Key matchup


Tyrod Taylor vs. "Sacksonville"

Pan the move if you will, but there was logic behind Sean McDermott's decision to pull the plug on his starting quarterback after back-to-back double-digit losses to the Jets and Saints at midseason. Quick to tuck and run, Taylor leaves throws on the field by aborting his full progression read. Worse, he takes too many sacks and manages just a 49.0 completion percentage and 71.1 passer rating versus pressure.

Similar to Bortles, his formula for success mandates an early lead which allows him to lean on the run, scramble on key third downs and surprise defenses with accurate deep strikes. From that perspective, he's facing a nightmarish matchup against "Sacksonville's" swarming pass rush and star-studded secondary.

Led by Calais Campbell and Yannick Ngokoue as the league's most productive pass-rushing duo, the Jaguars' front seven is the only one in the league featuring four players with 8.0 or more sacks.

If Taylor manages to escape the pressure, he will be throwing to a wide receiver corps that managed fewer yards combined than Antonio Brown amassed alone in 14 games. That's problematic against the shutdown cornerback duo of Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, each of whom ranks in the top five in opposing passer rating.

The Jaguars pass defense is historically good, leading the NFL in forced fumbles (17) completion percentage (56.8), passing yards per game (169.9), passer rating (68.5) and defensive touchdowns (7) while ranking second in sacks (55), interceptions (21) and total takeaways (33).

All signs point to a long afternoon for Taylor in his postseason debut.

Prediction


There's something to be said for a mediocre outfit defying December expectations and thumbing its nose at the football cognoscenti. Only four teams in the Super Bowl era have reached the postseason with a worse point differential than Buffalo's -57. All four of those underdogs -- the 1989 Steelers, 2004 Rams, 2010 Seahawks and 2011 Broncos -- went on to engineer upsets in opening round of the playoffs.

That said, those four outcomes have no bearing on the events that will transpire at EverBank Field once the whistle blows at 1:05 p.m. ET on Sunday. The Jaguars' advantage in talent is too vast to overcome.

Jaguars 27, Bills 13

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