1:05 PM EST, CBS – Line: Jaguars -9, Over/Under: 39
There is no better example of parity in the National Football League than today’s matchup featuring a pair of teams that have returned to the Playoffs after what has felt like ages, as the Jacksonville Jaguars host the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Wild Card Playoff from EverBank Stadium in Jacksonville, Florida. Finally, the longest Postseason Drought in our country’s four major professional sporting leagues has been snapped, as the Bills (9-7, 2nd in AFC East) have finally made their grand return to January Football for the first time since 1999, putting to rest eighteen frustrating years of failure in Western New York. Now, the task for Sean McDermott’s charges becomes earning their first Playoff Victory since 1995. If not for the mind-blowing job that Sean McVay has done in Los Angeles, his counterpart in Buffalo would be the odds-on favorite for the Coach of the Year Award, particularly when you consider the circumstances in which he’s rebuilt the team under. Simply put, you’d be hard-pressed to recognize this current Bills team apart from their previous few incarnations, for the Front Office cut ties with a number of prominent figures, including the likes of Sammy Watkins (Traded to the Rams), Ronald Darby (Traded to the Eagles), Marcell Dareus (Traded to the Jaguars), and Stephon Gilmore (Signed by the Patriots in Free Agency) just to name a few. They’ve also tried on multiple occasions to move on from Tyrod Taylor (62.6%, 186.6 Y/G, 5.46 NY/A, 14 TD, 4 INT), who after surviving their attempts to release him in the Offseason, was surprisingly benched before a mid-November meeting with the Los Angles Chargers, in favor of Nathan Peterman, who collapsed in monumental fashion, throwing a grand total of Five Interceptions in the first half of the eventual 54-24 debacle, leading McDermott to reinsert Taylor into the Starting Lineup, a position that he wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the season. Ultimately, this team’s success in 2017 can be attributed to the move that they didn’t make, for it would be hard to believe them advancing to this point had they managed to in fact part ways with the 28-Year Old Quarterback, who has played well down the stretch, completing 60.3% of his Attempts for an average of 191.4 Yards per Game on 6.79 Yards per Attempt, with Three Touchdowns and an Interception, while rushing for another 152 Yards and a score on Twenty-Seven Carries. Winners of three out of their last four outings, including a miraculous 13-7 victory over the struggling Indianapolis Colts in a bonafide snowstorm, the Bills booked their return to the Playoffs in the final weekend of the Regular Season, outlasting the Miami Dolphins in a 22-16 triumph. Despite very nearly relinquishing a 19-0 Third Quarter Lead, McDermott’s troops ended the Dolphins’ furious comeback with an Interception at Midfield with 0:56 left to play, but they would need help from outside forces to make their Postseason Dreams come true. While they were busy thwarting their Division Rival’s rally, the Cincinnati Bengals, down 27-24 in the Fourth Quarter at the Baltimore Ravens, miraculously scored a 49-Yard Touchdown on 4th & 12 with 0:56 left on the clock (there’s that number again), simultaneously eliminating one team from Playoff Qualification and permitting another. It was a poetic ending to the Regular Season for Buffalo, who throughout the entirety of the term had found ways to win despite their limitations; they are the only team to qualify for the Playoffs to be both outscored (Minus-3.5 P/G) and outgained (Minus-52.5 Y/G) by their opponents, with only two of their nine victories coming by ten points or more, while four of their seven losses came by more than twenty points. The great equalizer though, has been Takeaways, which the Defense managed to collect at a high volume, totaling Twenty-Five this season (9th Overall), which coupled with a conservative, run-heavy Offense (16 Turnovers, 6th Overall), led to a very healthy Plus-9 Turnover Differential. An utter lack of discipline was one of their glaring weaknesses over the last few years, and credit must go to McDermott and his Staff for cleaning that up; Offensively, Buffalo committed the tenth-fewest Penalties in the league (98, 872 YDS) in comparison to being flagged the tenth-most on this side of the ball a year ago, while getting penalized the fifth-fewest times (97, 873 YDS) on Defense opposed to the eighteenth-most in 2016. With all that said, what needs to be kept an eye on is this team’s overall health, for despite the momentum they carry, they will be limping into today’s affair with the Jaguars. Midseason acquisition Kelvin Benjamin (16 REC, 217 YDS, 1 TD) has been limited all week due to a lingering knee injury, while Tight End Charles Clay (Ankle) and Tackle Jordan Mills (Knee) are listed as Questionable due to various ailments, with the Offense’s only Pro Bowler, Tailback LeSean McCoy (287 CAR, 1,138 YDS, 6 TD), receiving treatment all week after suffering a high ankle sprain in the season finale at Miami. The Bills love to keep things grounded when in possession for the football, ranking Fourth in the NFL in Rushing Attempts (30.4) and Sixth in Rushing Yards (126.1), with the 6-Time Pro Bowler carrying a considerable load, also factoring into the passing game with Fifty-Nine Receptions for 448 Yards and another Two Touchdowns. In fact, his 1,586 Yards from Scrimmage accounts for 32.8% of the team’s Offense, making his potential absence all the more troublesome against one of the staunchest Defenses in the league.
Meanwhile, they may not have had to wait eighteen years, but it’s still been quite a while since the Jaguars (10-6, 1st in AFC South) advanced to the Playoffs, with their last appearance taking place back in 2007. It’s been a truly unexpected season for Jacksonville, who over the years have been that team that seemed to perennially fall short of expectations, only to finally surpass them this year while we were all looking the other way. Changing the culture is what this franchise desperately needed done, with Tom Coughlin (Executive Vice President of Football Operations) and Doug Marrone (Head Coach) certainly delivering in their first term together on the job in Northeastern Florida, guiding the team to their first outright Division Title since 1999, in which Coughlin was coincidentally the Head Coach. Despite their lack of success over the years, the Jaguars were rarely short on talent (hence the expectations), and that was no different this season, where Marrone and Co. became the brain-trust to finally put it all together, behind arguably the AFC’s nastiest Defense coupled with a punishing Running Game led by the Draft’s most heralded Rusher. Simply put, this was NOT a Defense that team’s enjoyed facing in 2017, for the Jags were absolutely dominant on this side of the ball, ranking Second Overall in Points Allowed (16.8 P/G), Total Defense (286.2 Y/G), Red Zone Defense (39.3%), Takeaways (33), and most notably Sacks (55), while leading the league in First Downs Allowed (257), Pass Defense (169.9 Y/G), and Net Yards per Attempt Allowed (4.8). Big, fast, and athletic, this unit features an excellent blend of youth and experience, with the Front Office complementing a slew of high Draft Picks such as Cornerback Jalen Ramsey (63 TKL, 4 INT, 17 PD) and Edge Rushers Dante Fowler (21 TKL, 8.0 SK, 2 FF, 3 FR, 1 TD) and Yannick Ngakoue (30 TKL, 12.0 SK, 6 FF, 2 FR, 1 TD) with established veterans, particularly Defensive End Calais Campbell (67 TKL, 14.5 SK, 3 FF, 1 FR, 1 TD), Cornerback AJ Bouye (56 TKL, 6 INT, 18 PD), and Tashaun Gipson (64 TKL, 4 INT, 7 PD). Furthermore, when these guys get their hands on the football, they sure do know what to do with it, for the Defense has scored a staggering Seven Touchdowns this season, the most in the NFL. Of course, this has gone a long way towards taking the pressure off of an Offense that remains many steps behind, though they have clearly established their identity as a physical team via the run. No team ran the ball more (32.9 A/G) and accumulated more yards (141.4 Y/G) on the ground than Jacksonville, who made things clear when they drafted Leonard Fournette (268 CAR, 1,048 YDS, 9 TD) with the Fourth Overall Pick last April that the past few years of sloppy, mistake-prone offensive football would be left in the past. However, as great as the Rookie Tailback has been, the Jaguars have been one of the few teams to feature a full Backfield, with four other players rushing for at least 200 Yards. Coincidentally, one of their number is Blake Bortles (60.2%, 3,687 YDS, 6.52 NY/A, 21 TD, 13 INT), their polarizing enigma of a Quarterback, who in the final year of his contract, has seen the new Coaching Staff do everything within their power to limit his impact on the field. And with good reason, for over the previous three years, the former No. 3 Overall Pick had tossed Fifty-One Interceptions, the most in the league over that span, while completing just 58.8% of his Passes, with his performances oftentimes marred by poor decision-making and inconsistent mechanics. With the running joke around the league being that if they were to indeed win, it would be in spite of their Quarterback, Bortles managed to turn the tables and offer by far and away his best season as a pro, improving on a number of fronts, all the while posting career-bests in Completion Percentage (60.2%), Interception Rate (2.5%), and Net Yards per Attempt (6.52). Much of this can be attributed to the fact that he’s benefitted from the best protection of his career, sustaining a career-low Twenty-Four Sacks, a far cry from the staggering Fifty-Five and Fifty-One he took in his first two years in the NFL. And before you just right it all off to the fact that Marrone has for all intents and purposes taken the ball out of his hands via the Run, keep in mind that he’s been excelling without the services of Pro Bowl Receiver Allen Robinson, who tore his ACL in the Season Opener. Of course, running the ball as successfully as they have makes life significantly easier on a Quarterback, with Marrone crafting the Gameplan to Bortles’ strengths, utilizing Play Action and Bootlegs to make better use of his arm and athleticism. With all that said, the question remains if this season is a sign of better things to come, or if this guy has simply plateaued as a passer in this league; it’s debatable as to whether or not he’s shown enough progress for the Front Office to invest heavier in him, for during a 3-Game Winning Streak in early December, Bortles was fantastically efficient, completing 71.4% of his Passes for an average of 301.0 Yards per Game on a whopping 9.83 Net Yards per Attempt, with Seven Touchdowns in comparison to Zero Interceptions, only to revert back to his past beleaguered form over the final two weeks of the campaign, converting on just 56.0% of his Attempts for 270.0 Yards per Game on 6.26 Net Yards per Attempt, while tossing a pair of Touchdowns and Five Interceptions. Indeed, the Jaguars are going to have quite the decision to make in the coming months, with his performance in these Playoffs likely to make or potentially break both his immediate and long-term future with the franchise.