By Sal Maiorana
Rochester Democrat & Chronicle
In this week’s edition of the must-win game, the Bills take on the Jacksonville Jaguars, a team that was considered by some NFL experts to be on the rise and a threat to win the AFC South. As it turns out, the Jags are a 2-8 train wreck with a coach firmly on the hot seat.
The Bills pulled their record back to all-square at 5-5 with the victory in Cincinnati, but their position in the AFC playoff chase remains tenuous, to say the least. The Jaguars, as Rex Ryan warily pointed out this week, probably aren’t as lousy as their record would indicate, but the Bills certainly have more to play for and they should be motivated to put forth a solid effort.
In the upcoming two weeks, the Bills have a pair of huge games at Oakland and then home against Pittsburgh, two teams squarely in the playoff race and both ahead of Buffalo in the conference standings. For those games to mean anything, the Bills cannot afford to stub their collective toe against an opponent it is clearly better than.
Here’s my preview of the game:
1. Can Sammy Watkins have an impact? Watkins will play for the first time since Week 2, but no one is sure how many snaps he’ll get. At the very least, he’s a player that the Jaguars will have to respect in coverage, but I’m not sure that means much given who Buffalo’s other receivers are. Even at 70 percent Watkins is better than anyone else for the Bills, so the Jaguars can double him all day and rest assured they probably won’t get burned by the likes of Percy Harvin (if he plays; he’s questionable), Marquise Goodwin, Justin Hunter and Brandon Tate. The Jaguars’ fifth-ranked pass defense is deceiving; they don’t give up a lot of yards because so often, the opposition is ahead in the fourth quarter and is just trying to run out the clock, so they don’t bother to throw. That said, CBs Jalen Ramsey and Prince Amukamara are fine players, so they could make Watkins’ return challenging.
2. Can Doug Marrone’s offensive line control the Bills’ front seven? Kelvin Beachum, Chris Reed, Brandon Linder, A.J. Cann, and Jermey Parnell. If you can honestly say that you know a single thing about any of these Jaguars offensive linemen, you probably need to assess how you spend your free time. This is the group that the ex-Bills coach is in charge of, and they’ve actually had a decent year as they rank ninth in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt allowed with Blake Bortles biting the dust just 21 times. Now, they come up against a healthy Bills front seven that leads the league in sacks with 31, led by Lorenzo Alexander and Jerry Hughes, plus Marcell Dareus who played his second game of the season last week and had what Rex Ryan called a dominant performance. If the Bills get heat on Bortles, he’s prone to mistakes which his 13 interceptions — tied for most in the NFL — proves.
3. If the Bills win, should we start believing in their playoff chances? Winning certainly helps their cause as they’d be 6-5, but the two weeks coming up will be the true test. Ryan is correct in saying that the Jaguars are more talented than their 2-8 record indicates, but this is a team the Bills should handle without much problem at New Era Field. After that, things get a little dicey with a trip to Oakland and then a home game against the Steelers. The Raiders are 8-2 thanks to an explosive offense that could give the Bills fits, and the Steelers are every bit as dangerous on offense if Ben Roethlisberger has all his weapons such as Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell. But first things first for the Bills; take care of business Sunday because a loss to the Jaguars would render those next two games basically meaningless.
Ryan says, with a bit of hyperbole, that the Jaguars are the best two-win team he’s ever seen. Whether that’s true or not is irrelevant. The fact is, the Jaguars have lost eight of 10 games and as the old Bill Parcells saying goes, “you are what your record says you are.” Jacksonville is on its way to a top five 2017 draft pick, and it is a team that the Bills have no business losing to, especially at home. The Bills have already lost three games that, in my opinion, they had no business losing — at Baltimore, vs. the Jets, and at Miami. Those defeats are the primary reason why they are very close to being extinct in the playoff race. There is no room for error, and Jacksonville can’t possibly be the team that blows the Bills postseason chances out the window. During the killer three-game losing streak to Miami, New England and Seattle, the Bills defense allowed a combined 100 points, but it bounced back with a strong showing in Cincinnati, shutting the Bengals out in the second half. If the defense plays that way against struggling Jaguars QB Bortles, there shouldn’t be much to worry about in this game because the Bills should be able to move the ball, and score on, the Jacksonville defense. MY PICK: Bills 26, Jaguars 17.
By the Numbers
8.2 – Average number of points the Bills have allowed in the second half of their games, the fourth-best figure in the league.
4 – Third-down conversions the Bills defense has allowed in the red zone (out of 16 chances), which ranks them tied for fifth in that category.
-15 – That’s Jacksonville’s turnover margin this season, worst in the NFL. Jacksonville has committed a league-high 22 turnovers.
CB Stephon Gilmore on his performance last week: “I’ve always been a guy to show you what I’m going to do. It’s what I’m about, and that’s what this secondary is about. We’ve got to have strong minds in the secondary. You’ve got to have a short-term memory to bounce back.”
OG Richie Incognito recalling last year’s loss to the Jaguars: “We traveled all the way over to London last year and it was just a crazy game. We fought all the way back and then we had the pass interference call at the end that kind of controlled the outcome of that game. So yeah, it left a bad taste in our mouth.”
QB Tyrod Taylor on TE Charles Clay’s disappointing season: “I can’t pinpoint a specific reason. I’ve always said this, ‘coverage dictates where the ball goes.’ I know he’s excited to come out there and play once he’s given the opportunity for the big game. We’ve been able to give him the football and some touches here and there. Haven’t been able to get him the game that he’s looking for, and we want him to have that.”
Quote to Note
“I appreciate that. I mean I think a lot of that is just coming out of nowhere so you add that shock value, that unexpected, the expectation that wasn’t there for me. That kind of maybe adds to it, but there are a lot of guys on this team that have been dominant and are huge MVPs for this team.” – LB Lorenzo Alexander responding to a comment by Rex Ryan that he was the Bills’ MVP.
NFL stats and rankings
Total offense: 343.5 (18th) 337.5 (21st)
Run offense: 157.8 (1st) 87.6 (26th)
Pass offense: 185.7 (32nd) 249.9 (16th)
Points scored: 25.3 (10th) 19.3 (27th)
Total defense: 346.0 (12th) 322.6 (7th)
Run defense: 107.3 (20th) 113.0 (22nd)
Pass defense: 238.7 (11th) 209.6 (5th)
Points allowed: 21.5 (T12th) 26.5 (25th)