In many ways, this is all a little surreal. The Bills are in the NFL playoffs, and though it was irrational to think that it was never going to happen again, there were times during their 17-year drought when it felt just like that.
Year after year after year, the Bills were either lousy, or just not quite good enough to get into the postseason, and after a while, you just assumed that every season would end right around New Years' Day, and then we'd all sit down and watch 12 other teams participate in the playoffs.
For most of the drought, there wasn't a more irrelevant franchise in football than the Bills in January, and it didn't matter who the coach was, who the general manager was, or who the quarterback was. The Bills never had the right people in place, and it was so moribund that during those 17 years when they didn't make it into the tournament, they played only one game that meant anything in Week 17.
And then 2017 happened.
The Pegulas picked a coach named Sean McDermott who actually had a viable plan and a clear vision; a guy who knew what he was doing, a man who could get other men to follow him.
They ultimately picked a general manager named Brandon Beane who seems to understand what talented players look like, a gunslinger in a suit who isn't afraid to trade away players who didn't fit into what he and McDermott are trying to build.
As for the quarterback, maybe he's not the right man for the job long-term, but love him or hate him, Tyrod Taylor is the first quarterback since Doug Flutie to get the Bills to the postseason.
No matter what happens Sunday in the AFC wild-card game against Jacksonville, this was a watershed year for the Bills. There is much work to be done, but someday we may look back on 2017 the way we did on 1987, the year the Bills began to distance themselves from back-to-back 2-14 seasons and set a dynastic course that ultimately led to 10 playoff appearances, including four straight AFC championships, in a span of 12 years.
A win this weekend against the Jaguars would be awesome but Sal Maiorana says killing the drought means everything to this team. Sal Maiorana, Virginia Butler
Here's my preview of the game:
1. Will the Bills be able to move the ball through the air? Of all the lopsided statistical matchups in this game, this one looks particularly ugly for the Bills. Buffalo ranked 31st in the NFL in passing, averaging just 176.6 yards per game. Jacksonville ranked No. 1 in pass defense allowing just 169.9 yards per game, but beyond that, the Jaguars also led the league in sacks, opposing QB rating, and were No. 2 in interceptions. Tyrod Taylor is typically averse to throwing into tight coverage windows, and they're going to be pretty tight in this game as the Jaguars have two Pro Bowl cornerbacks in A.J. Bouye and Jalen Ramsey. It seems illogical to believe that the Bills' WR corps is going to create much space since they haven't all year. Kelvin Benjamin would seem to be the best bet, but he's simply not 100 percent due to a knee injury and has been of little help to the Bills since he arrived, totaling just 16 catches for 217 yards and a touchdown. Zay Jones and Deonte Thompson will need to help him out, not to mention TE Charles Clay.
2. Is the Bills coaching staff up to the task of beating a superior opponent? The Bills were 2-4 against playoff teams this season, the victories coming in Atlanta and Kansas City. Those were impressive, but you can argue the Bills caught both teams at just the right time during periods when they weren't playing their best. The Bills lost twice to the Patriots, and also lost to the Panthers and Saints. To beat the Jaguars, Sean McDermott and his coaching staff will need to be diverse and creative in their game plan. Playing it conservative on offense won't work. The Bills will have to go off script against this excellent Jaguars defense, so play-action passes, designed Taylor runs, better use of Benjamin, and maybe a trick play or two would be helpful. On defense, the Bills should look to be more exotic in their fronts, perhaps use more blitzing, even though Leslie Frazier isn't a big blitz caller. It's not always wise to try to be something you're not, but to beat the better teams, you have to out-coach them as well as out-play them.
3. Can the Bills find a way to make Blake Bortles have to beat them? Another terrible matchup for Buffalo is its 29th-ranked run defense against the Jaguars top-ranked rushing offense led by rookie stud Leonard Fournette. The Bills had seven games this year where they yielded at least 4.70 yards per rush, and for the season, the Bills' average per rush yield was 4.09 which ranked 25th. One of the keys will be Buffalo's ability up front to absorb blocks and plug the middle, and allow LBs Preston Brown and Matt Milano (or Ramon Humber, as Milano may be slowed by a hamstring injury) to get to Fournette before he gets a full head of steam. Brown led the NFL in tackles with 144, so he'll play a critical role here. If the Bills can slow the run game, then the burden falls to Bortles, the much-maligned Jacksonville QB who seems to be the outlier on this team. Bortles is perfectly capable of blowing this game for the Jaguars if he has the type of day where he throws inaccurately, and/or turns the ball over. Getting him to make mistakes will be crucial for the Bills.
There is no reason to believe that the Bills can't win this game, regardless of what the Las Vegas point spread says. Yes, every statistical matchup seems to favor the Jaguars, and if this game were played on a computer, it might not go well for the Bills. But that's not the case. Jacksonville is a talented team, but it doesn't have much playoff experience on its roster, and all the pressure will be on the Jaguars. They're the home team, the No. 3 seed, the heavy favorite, and they're playing what is widely regarded – and for good reason – to be the weakest playoff team in the field. In fact, based on the numbers, the Bills are one of the weakest NFL playoff teams in recent memory, a team that was outscored by 57 points this season. Very few observers give the Bills much of a chance, but that, of course, is exactly how the Bills like it. We've heard the phrase more than a few times this week that the Bills are playing with “house money” because they've already exceeded the low expectations that were placed on them this season. They scoff at the notion, but they should be able to play loose and free, and if they play very well, catch a few breaks, and benefit from the Jaguars seizing up just a bit, an upset is entirely possible. That said, I do think the Jaguars have enough to get past a Buffalo team that will probably have a very tough time moving the ball and scoring. MY PICK: Jaguars 20, Bills 13.
Bills vs. Jaguars
When: 1:05 p.m. Sunday
Where: EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Florida
TV/radio: CBS (Ch. 8)/WCMF (96.5 FM)
Last meeting: Bills won, 28-21, on Nov. 27, 2016
Series: Bills lead 8-7
By the Numbers
5 – Interceptions by both Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, the only pair of teammates in the NFL to have that many this season.
16 – Turnovers by the Bills, the second-lowest total in franchise history.
144 – Tackles by Preston Brown, which not only led the Bills, but also led the NFL.
The Buffalo defense will have to contain Jaguars rookie
The Buffalo defense will have to contain Jaguars rookie running back Leonard Fournette. (Photo: Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports)
DT Kyle Williams on the difference in preparing for a playoff game: “I feel like we've been here before, maybe just last week. We needed to win to keep going. The way that we prepare is not going to change, the way that we work is not going to change. We have a standard in the way that we like to prepare and the only way that we're going to have an opportunity on Sunday is if we do have a great week of practice. That's what we're focused on right now.”
SS Micah Hyde on his Pro Bowl season: “Week in and week out, I watch the film and I'm hard on myself. I feel like I could play a lot better and that's how a lot of guys in this locker room are, it's not just myself. We see ourselves as – we hold ourselves to a high standard. It's a blessing to be here and have that accomplishment, but at the same time, that's not the finish line for me. I know that I have a long way to go and I want to help this team out a lot more than what I was able to do this season.”
LB Preston Brown on making the playoffs: “It's fun to still be here. Usually you're driving back home, packing all your stuff up, and packing up your locker. But, in January we're preparing for another game to continue our season. So, this is just fun, the whole process.”
Quote to note
OG Richie Incognito on the Jaguars mode of operation: “I think if you watch them, Tom Coughlin's fingerprints are all over this thing. It really feels like he's running the show. Ball-control offense, running the football, taking its time, suffocating defense that creates turnovers. When you get in that third and long, they really turn up the pass rush. I think Coughlin and (Doug) Marrone have been the stabilizing factor because they've had the talent – they've brought in one or two guys here or there – and it seems like it's really invigorated the whole unit.”
Total offense: 302.6 yards (29th) ; 365.9 (6th)
Rush offense: 126.1 yards (6th); 141.4(1st)
Pass offense: 176.6 yards (31st); 224.6 (17th)
Points scored: 18.8 (22nd); 26.1 (5th)
Total defense: 355.1 yards (26th); 286.1 (2nd)
Rush defense: 1124.6 yards (29th); 116.3 (21st)
Pass defense: 230.5 yards (20th); 169.9 (1st)
Points allowed: 22.4 (18th); 16.7 (2nd)
Bills travel to Jacksonville Sunday, Jan. 7, to take on the Jags in an AFC wild-card matchup. (Jan. 2, 2018) Jamie Germano
Bills: LeSean McCoy 287 carries, 1,138 yards; Tyrod Taylor 84-427; Mike Tolbert 66-247; Travaris Cadet 22-93.
Jaguars: Leonard Fournette 268-1,040; Chris Ivory 112-382; Blake Bortles 57-322; T.J. Yeldon 49-253.
Bills: Tyrod Taylor 263 of 420, 2,799 yards, 14 TDs, 4 interceptions.
Jaguars: Blake Bortles 315 of 523, 3,687 yards, 21 TDS, 13 interceptions.
Bills: LeSean McCoy 59 catches, 448 yards; Charles Clay 49-558; Deonte Thompson 27-430; Zay Jones 27-316; Jordan Matthews 25-282; Nick O'Leary 22-322.
Jaguars: Marqise Lee 56-702; Keelan Cole 42-748; Allen Hurns 39-484; Leonard Fournette 36-302; T.J. Yeldon 30-224.
9/10 vs. Jets W 21-12
9/17 at Panthers L 3-9
9/24 vs. Broncos W 26-16
10/1 at Falcons W 23-17
10/8 at Bengals L 16-20
10/22 vs. Buccaneers W 30-27
10/29 vs. Raiders W 34-14
11/2 at Jets L 21-34
11/12 vs. Saints L 10-47
11/19 at Chargers L 24-54
11/26 at Chiefs W 16-10
12/3 vs. Patriots L 3-23
12/10 vs. Colts W 13-7 (OT)
12/17 vs. Dolphins W 24-16
12/24 at Patriots L 16-37
12/31 at Dolphins W 22-16