BUFFALO BILLS (9-7) AT JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS (10-6)
SERIES HISTORY: 16th all-time meeting. Bills lead series, 8-7. Last year, the Bills defeated the Jaguars 28-21; the year before, Buffalo lost 34-31 at Wembley Stadium in London. In the only playoff game, the Jaguars won 30-27 in 1996. That game happened to be the first meeting in Jacksonville's second season in the NFL. It also happened to be the Bills' only postseason game loss at Rich Stadium, now named New Era Field.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Buffalo offense is in a very tough predicament. There's a good chance that star RB LeSean McCoy (sprained ankle) will not be able to play, so the Bills will have to rely on aging veteran Mike Tolbert and young newcomer Marcus Murphy to carry the load against a Jacksonville defense that is stout up front.
The Jaguars' defense ranked only 26th in yards per rush, and perhaps McCoy could have exploited that, but it's asking a lot for Tolbert and Murphy to take advantage. If the Bills are stymied in the running game, their chances of throwing against the No. 1 pass defense in the NFL will be slim. QB Tyrod Taylor could be a key with his ability to run.
The Jaguars would love to take the onus off QB Blake Bortles and feed RB Leonard Fournette. Given that Buffalo ranks 29th against the run, that's not a bad plan. The Jaguars continue to rank atop the NFL's rushing statistics, averaging 141.4 yards per game. But they have been over 140 yards only once since Week 9.
The Bills must stop Fournette and make Bortles try to make plays. If that happens, the Bills' secondary can match up well with the Jaguars' receivers. The Bills have been a good turnover team all season, and 17 of their 18 interceptions have been made by defensive backs.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Bills WR Kelvin Benjamin vs. Jaguars CBs Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye. If LeSean McCoy can't play, the Bills are going to have to throw the ball to succeed, and that won't be easy against Pro Bowl corners Ramsey and Bouye. Benjamin is the Bills' most talented receiver and the one most capable of making big plays, but he has been hampered by a knee injury ever since he arrived in a trade from Carolina, and he hasn't produced much. This is a game where he will have to have an impact if the Bills' offense stands a chance.
--Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette vs. Bills MLB Preston Brown. The Bills ranked 29th in the NFL in stopping the run and have struggled terribly with big, physical backs, and Fournette certainly fits that category. Brown led the NFL with 144 tackles, and one of the keys for him will be to get off blocks quickly and plug the holes.
--Bills TE Charles Clay vs. Jaguars FS Tashaun Gipson. If McCoy doesn't play, this matchup will take on even more importance as the Bills will have to go to more of a passing attack. That will involve Clay as much as anyone. He's second on the team in receptions (59) and first with 558 yards. Gipson has had a good year and has excelled in covering some of the top tight ends in the league this year. Gipson likes to play close to the line of scrimmage and has been instrumental in the Jaguars improving their defense against running plays. He's also been a standout in defending the pass, with four interceptions.
FRIDAY INJURY REPORT
--Out: CB Shareece Wright (concussion)
--Questionable: RB LeSean McCoy (ankle), LB Matt Milano (hamstring), T Jordan Mills (ankle), WR Deonte Thompson (shoulder), QB Joe Webb (ankle)
--Questionable: WR Marqise Lee (ankle), RB T.J. Yeldon (illness)
PLAYER SPOTLIGHT: Jaguars NT Marcell Dareus. No player is likely more excited about this playoff game than Dareus, who was with Buffalo to start the season. He was traded to Jacksonville on Oct. 28 and appeared in nine games with the Jaguars. He started the season finale against Tennessee and recorded a season-high eight tackles and registered his only sack with the Jaguars. Dareus was a starter with the Bills in 2013-14 when current Jaguars coach Doug Marrone was coach of the Bills. Dareus has been instrumental in helping the Jaguars improve a unit that was last in the league against the run -- it finished 21st.
FAST FACTS: The Bills are in the playoffs for the first time since 1999. ... Sean McDermott is the second coach in franchise history to take the team to the postseason in his first full season (Wade Phillips in 1998). ... QB Tyrod Taylor led the NFL with 0.95 interception percentage. His 1.4 career INT percentage is the lowest in NFL history (minimum 1,000 attempts). ... CB Tre'Davious White tied for the NFL rookie lead with 18 passes defensed and tied for second with four interceptions. ... The Jaguars won the AFC South, their first division title since 1999, when it was the AFC Central. ... Jacksonville led the NFL with seven defensive TDs and ranked second in the league with 55 sacks and 21 interceptions. ... QB Blake Bortles threw for 3,687 yards and has at least 3,500 in each of the past three seasons. ... RB Leonard Fournette led all rookies with nine rushing TDs and ranked second with 1,040 rushing yards.
PREDICTION: The Jaguars should be able to use a balanced offensive attack to keep the Bills on their heels and force Tyrod Taylor to play from behind.
OUR PICK: Jaguars, 31-13.