Four teams in this year’s NFL playoffs ended long stretches without postseason football by qualifying. The Buffalo Bills (1999), Los Angeles Rams (2004), Jacksonville Jaguars (2007) and Tennessee Titans (2008) came into this season with a combined 46 years of not making the playoffs. But that’s all in the past now.
Two of those clubs, the Bills and the Jaguars, are preparing to meet in this weekend’s AFC wild card round. Sunday’s game (1:05 PM ET, CBS) pits teams who finally put it all together after years of irrelevance. Though Buffalo famously got help from Andy Dalton and the Cincinnati Bengals, they also took care of business against the Miami Dolphins. The confluence of those two factors saw them get in for the first time this millennium.
Similar yet different to the Bills, Jacksonville is partying like it’s 1999 as well. Though they have two playoff appearances in that time, 2017 marks their first division title since then. That year, they also finished with the league’s best regular season record for the only time in franchise history. Their head coach? None other than Tom Coughlin who returned to the club as executive vice president of football operations in 2017. The results are striking as the Jags erased six straight seasons of five or fewer wins this year.
So what are the most prominent storylines ahead of the 16th all-time meeting between these two franchises and the second in the playoffs?
Buffalo Bills-Jacksonville Jaguars: The Wild Card Round’s Feel Good Matchup
Revenge 21 Years in the Making?
Believe it or not, the first ever game between the Bills and Jags came in the postseason. It took place on December 28, 1996 and much like Sunday’s looming clash, it occurred in the wild card round. That Bills team included the nucleus which participated in four straight Super Bowls and finished with a 10-6 record. They hosted Jacksonville who concluded the regular season with a 9-7 mark in just their second year of existence.
It was a closely fought affair with the game tied both at halftime and heading into the fourth quarter. Buffalo looked to have the upper hand after Jeff Burris intercepted Mark Brunell and took it the distance to make it 27-20 after the extra point. But Brunell rebounded, completing all three of his passes on the ensuing drive. It included a two-yard toss to Jimmy Smith to tie things up.
The Coughlin-led Jags also relied heavily on their run game, led by Natrone Means. He finished with 175 yards on the ground, 45 which of came in the fourth quarter. It helped set up a 45 yard Mike Hollis field goal that proved to be the game-winner. The 30-27 defeat remains the only home playoff loss in Bills history and turned out to be the final game of Jim Kelly‘s illustrious career.
Over two decades later and the roles are completely reversed. Jacksonville is the sizable home favorite. Though Tyrod Taylor boasts more accrued seasons in the league, Blake Bortles is the more experienced starter. Plus expectations were higher considering he was a top three pick in 2014. Back in 1996, Kelly committed two key turnovers which led to points for the Jags. This time around, the Bills need to force similar mistakes out of Bortles in order to come out on top this time.
Battle of Two Playmaking Defenses
Both of these teams are here in part due to shrewd moves both via free agency and the draft to shore up their secondary.
Last year, the Jags drafted Jalen Ramsey fifth overall and also brought in Tashaun Gipson who played his first four NFL seasons with the Cleveland Browns. Then they signed A.J. Bouye and Barry Church from the Houston Texans and Dallas Cowboys respectively in the 2017 off-season.
The Bills undertook a massive makeover in their secondary ahead of this season. They used the free agency market to acquire Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, drafted Tre’Davious White in the first round of the draft and received E.J. Gaines and a second round pick in the trade that sent Sammy Watkins to the Los Angeles Rams.
You can make the argument that these two secondaries are among the biggest reasons for both teams’ feel good turnaround stories in 2017. The Jags finished the season second in interceptions (22) and tied for eighth in pass breakups (77). Meanwhile, Buffalo intercepted 18 passes in 2017 and broke up 81. Both were good enough for sixth best in the league.
The advanced stats site Pro Football Focus loves the Bills and Jags corners and safeties. All four of Buffalo’s primary starters (Gaines, Hyde, Poyer and White) garnered a top 20 coverage grade from PFF. They also ranked Bouye and Ramsey second and fifth in terms of coverage among the league’s corners. In total, eight Jacksonville defensive players received top 20 overall grades from the site. That’s more than any team in the league.
These defensive playmakers need to feast on the inexperience of both quarterbacks. Neither Taylor nor Bortles has a playoff start of any kind. Doing so, especially in the Bills case considering their susceptibility against the run, is as big a key to victory as any.
Buffalo’s Run Game Dilemma on Both Sides of the Ball
One of the biggest challenges the Bills will face in this game is how to kickstart their own run game while preventing the same out of the Jags. Two factors are at play here. Number one: LeSean McCoy won’t be at 100 percent and it’s possible he doesn’t see a single snap after spraining his ankle last week. The second: Buffalo’s been downright offensive defending the run and face pro football’s best rushing offense spearheaded by dynamic rookie Leonard Fournette.
Compounding the problem is Marcell Dareus. Since the Bills traded the talented yet troubled interior defender to Sunday’s wild card opponent, he’s shored up a Jags defense dealing with their own issues in run defense. Prior to Dareus’ arrival, Jacksonville was giving up 138.6 yards per game. In the nine games he’s played since, that number is down significantly at 98.9. If McCoy can’t go, it underscores the importance of the Bills inculcating a “next man up” philosophy within the running back corps.
One player of note in that regard is Marcus Murphy. A seventh round pick of the New Orleans Saints in 2015, Buffalo signed him off their practice squad last week to fill in for Travaris Cadet who suffered a gruesome leg injury against the New England Patriots in week 16. Though Murphy carried the ball just seven times against the Dolphins, he did so at 5.86 yards a pop and broke off a 25 yard run to set up a first and goal that led to a field goal. A committee approach incorporating him, Taylor and Mike Tolbert might be a prescient strategy in this game in the event McCoy doesn’t play.
From a scheme standpoint, the Bills need to take advantage of Jacksonville’s aggressive style on defense. This necessitates a variety of looks in the run game, from gap runs between the tackles to outside zone plays. Play action and bootlegs to force overcommitment out of the Jags linebacker could also set up the short and intermediate pass game. Defensively, Buffalo must stay gap disciplined and prevent Fournette and his offensive line from establishing consistent downhill momentum.
Two Hard Luck Franchises Looking To Skill Their Way to the Divisional Round
These two success starved fanbases finally have something more than hope to cling on to. This year, they’re in the 12-team tournament that culminates with Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis. Not only are they connected by their only other postseason tussle, in addition to this year’s Dareus deal. Current Jags head coach Doug Marrone spent two years in the same capacity with Buffalo. It included leading them to their last winning season in 2014.
But this is now Sean McDermott‘s team. One season into his tenure, he proceeded to help erase 17 years of frustration and melancholy. In so doing, he became just the second Buffalo head coach to make the playoffs in his first year. The only other is Wade Phillips, who’s also the last to coach a Bills playoff game. Ironically, the two are similar in that their specialty is defense and both helped the Bills and Los Angeles Rams end long playoff droughts in 2017. Phillips did so as defensive coordinator on Sean McVay‘s staff in LA.
McDermott’s task at hand is preparing this club sufficiently enough to facilitate the cessation of another long drought. Not only would a win give the Bills its first playoff triumph since December 30, 1995. It would be the first on the road since clinching its third Super Bowl appearance on January 17, 1993. Both came against the Dolphins, whom they dispatched in week 17 to get to this point. And regardless of what happens, Sunday’s game serves as a stepping stone in the process towards reawakening this franchise’s past greatness.