Who will win the battle of the AFC's two postseason Cinderellas?
At the turn of the century, the 2000 NFL playoffs began with the Jacksonville Jaguars as the AFC’s top seed. Buffalo, after a decade filled with four Super Bowl appearances, made the field as a wild card team. Both franchises seemed positioned for long-term success in the sport even though their postseasons ended in disappointment: Buffalo fell victim to the “Music City Miracle,” a Tennessee Titans team that marched on to beat the Jaguars in the AFC Championship Game.
No one would have guessed the droughts ahead for both franchises; indeed, it would take 17 years for either team to reach those same heights. Buffalo suffered through a 0-for-playoff drought, stumbling through losing season after losing season while the days of Jim Kelly and Thurman Thomas sank further into the rear-view mirror. The Jaguars made the postseason only twice, in 2005 and ’07 while failing to secure even a single division title when placed in the realigned, four-team AFC South.
But in a year filled with improbable performances, these two Cinderella stories are poised to clash in Sunday’s AFC Wild Card Game. Both teams feel strongly they can make an improbable run to the Super Bowl; Buffalo is itching for a third visit to top-seeded New England while Jacksonville beat second-seeded Pittsburgh already this year.
But they’ll have to get past each other first. Can the third-seeded Jaguars hold serve at home behind the rushing of Leonard Fournette? Or will the sixth-seeded Bills keep the miracles coming with LeSean McCoy overcoming a right ankle injury suffered in Week 17?
AFC Wild Card: Buffalo at Jacksonville
Kickoff: Sunday, Jan. 7 at 1:05 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS
Spread: Jaguars -9
Three Things to Watch
1. Leonard Fournette vs. LeSean McCoy
This battle becomes irrelevant, of course, if McCoy (right) cannot play on Sunday. But after Bills fans feared he was done for the season, carted off the field with a sprained right ankle against the Dolphins in Week 17, there’s energy building around the chance he’ll suit up and play.
X-Rays on the ankle were negative, giving hope the right amount of rest will provide the Bills’ main offensive threat time to heal up.
"I want to be able to cut well enough to where I don't have a lot of pain cutting," McCoy told ESPN. "I just want to be close, or the best as far as [being] 100 percent as I can get. The type of game like this, you got to lay it all on the line. If I can't get 100 percent, as long as I'm out there and I can work effective enough, I'll do it.”
McCoy didn’t practice on Thursday, focusing instead on strengthening the muscles surrounding his ankle. Whether he plays will almost certainly be a game-time decision.
If he does? You’re looking at a guy who wound up fourth in the AFC in rushing with 1,138 yards. Add in another 59 catches (leading the team as a running back) and it’s clear how McCoy is the heart of the Buffalo offense.
Unlike the Bills, the Jags have more options besides their rookie rusher. The first-round pick racked up 1,040 yards on the ground to rank fifth in the AFC despite playing just 13 of 16 games. He’s dealing with his own injury (quad) but looked to be his old self last week against the Titans (136 total yards from scrimmage).
Fournette has also endeared himself to a Jags offense that often comes under fire with the inconsistency of Blake Bortles. He bought his linemen Rolexes this week, a much-publicized gift designed to show how his selflessness is helping change the attitude of what once was a poisoned locker room culture.
As it is, the Bills are soft against the run (29th in the NFL this season allowing 124.6 yards per game). The top-ranked rushing offense of the Jags will run all over their competition if McCoy can’t suit up and play. Fournette needs a foil for the Bills to even have a chance.
2. Which quarterback can show up in a game that matters?
Both Tyrod Taylor (above, right) of the Bills and Bortles (right) have been criticized this year for sloppy play. Bortles in particular comes in limping, throwing for just two touchdowns and five interceptions in season-ending losses to San Francisco and Tennessee.
Taylor, by comparison, has played well during the month of December, throwing for two touchdowns and no picks in three games since returning from a knee injury. He’s done a great job of managing limited options and doing just enough for the Bills offense.
But while Bortles may be slumping, his arm also has the talent to be a game-changer. At one point this year, he was red hot, throwing for seven touchdowns, no picks, and 903 yards in a three-game winning streak before his season-ending dip.
Can who is arguably the most criticized quarterback in the NFL rediscover that magic? Supporters would say Bortles was missing a key weapon in Marqise Lee these last two weeks. The team believes Lee will return to the lineup Sunday, back to nearly 100 percent after an ankle injury.
Excited Jaguars owner Shahid Khan, who said tickets for the team’s first playoff game since 2007 are selling five or six times above face value, believes Bortles can still get the job done.
“He’s from the area, he’s a nice guy, he’s talented,” Khan told the AP. “He’s stayed healthy. He’s not a China doll. We are invested. We want him to be successful.”
But Sunday will tell us a lot as to whether Bortles can head the route of a QB like Joe Flacco, whose fledgling career was fixed by postseason success or continue to be perhaps the team’s weakest link on offense.
As for Taylor? If McCoy sits out, the Buffalo leader has to be the game’s biggest star. Only Kelvin Benjamin stands out as a potential downfield threat. Taylor has to find a way to use his legs to keep the defense guessing and give some separation for his overmatched receiving corps.
3. Can the Jags “D” keep coming through?
The Bills' offense, ranked just 29th in the NFL this season in yards per game faces a Jags defense that led the AFC. They were also second to the NFL to the Vikings in yards allowed per game, points allowed per game, and led the league outright in passing yards allowed (169.9). No other team was even close.
That’s problematic for a shaky Bills offensive line that may be forced to protect a McCoy-less backfield and Taylor. The Jaguars are feasting at the chance to pounce on a backup running back; their 17 forced fumbles led the AFC. Their 55 sacks were second to only the Steelers and they’re facing an O-line that leaves Taylor vulnerable despite his speed; they’ve allowed 10 sacks in the last two games alone.
Keep in mind the Bills haven’t scored more than 24 points in over two months. One pick-six or fumble recovery could be all the Jags need in a low-scoring contest to make the difference.
Despite being a clear underdog on paper, the Bills enter this weekend playing with house money. No one expected them to make the postseason in a rebuilding year under freshman head coach Sean McDermott. A midseason blunder to bench Tyrod Taylor for Nathan Peterman was supposed to be the knockout punch in a devastating loss to the Chargers.
The Bills even ended their game Sunday outside of playoff position. It took a miracle Andy Dalton throw with less than a minute left for the Cincinnati Bengals to beat the Baltimore Ravens and somehow end the Bills' postseason drought. (The team responded this week by sending the Bengals 1,440 wings through local restaurant Duff’s).
If they were playing any other team, at any other time you could make the argument the Bills could be a team of destiny. But their opponent this weekend, the Jaguars, has been touting that same underdog label for months. They were peaking at the right time in December and one could argue their season-ending slump was deceiving. The team still played well against the 49ers, running into the buzz saw that was Jimmy Garoppolo and then had little incentive to give 110 percent after being locked into the No. 3 seed before their Week 17 finale.
No, the Jags won’t overlook this Cinderella; they already hold the slipper. A fascinating divisional matchup with the Steelers awaits and if LeSean McCoy sits, the Jags could send some shivers down the rest of the AFC playoff field with a statement game that won’t even be close.
Prediction: Jaguars 31, Buffalo 13
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NASCARBowles.