Jags host Bills in battle of Cinderellas
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- The NFL doesn't do the Cinderella story often, but one is coming when the Jacksonville Jaguars host the Buffalo Bills in an AFC wild-card game on Sunday.
The question is, which is the Cinderella story?
The Jaguars (10-6) won their first-ever AFC South title, are in the playoffs for the first time since 2007 and will host their first playoff game since 1999 at EverBank Field. Jacksonville was an NFL-worst 17-63 over the previous five seasons.
The Bills (9-7) were able to snap a playoff drought that dated back to 1999, winning the sixth seed and final wild-card berth with a win over Miami in the regular-season finale.
The winner of Sunday's game will become the playoff darling.
There are other notable storylines as well.
Jaguars first-year coach Doug Marrone coached the Bills in 2013-14 before opting out of his contract and walking away with a $4 million payout when Buffalo changed ownership.
Marrone ended up missing out on an immediate head-coaching opening and was hired by former Jaguars coach Gus Bradley to be the offensive line coach. Marrone served as the interim coach for two games last season after Bradley was fired and was promoted to head coach last January.
Buffalo's roster has changed over significantly since Marrone left. There are only six players on the roster that played under Marrone. The Bills have also already fired the coach that succeeded Marrone -- Rex Ryan -- hiring first-year coach Sean McDermott.
Marrone's exit has come up before -- at his introductory press conference last January and at the league's scouting combine a month later when he acknowledged his "mistake." He tried to deflect questions as best he could on Monday.
"There has obviously been a lot of stuff out there," Marrone said. "That stuff is done. It is over. I can't put it any simpler than that. I am not going to take away from my primarily responsibility to look back on a situation that occurred three years ago. If I do that, then I shouldn't be the coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. My job is to make sure I do the best job for this team."
The two teams also completed a trade prior to the deadline Oct. 28, with the Bills sending high-priced defensive tackle Marcell Dareus for a 2018 fifth-round draft pick. The Jaguars had the worst run defense in the NFL when they made the move and ended up finishing 21st.
"I just told him to be smart (on Sunday)," Marrone said. "The last two games, he's played well. He looks like he's becoming more comfortable with the calls and what we do. Again, it's hard to insert someone right away."
The Bills don't seem to match up well on paper. They rank 30th in sacks allowed and are 29th in total offense.
The Jaguars defense ranks first in the NFL in yards-per-play, pass defense and interceptions and is ranked second in total defense, sacks and scoring defense.
They could be in line for another dominant outing, especially if Bills star running back LeSean McCoy can't play after injuring his ankle in Sunday's win over Miami. McCoy has carried 287 times for 1,138 yards with six touchdowns this season and has a team-high 59 catches for 448 yards and two scores.
McDermott would have a tall task in replacing McCoy. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor is the team's second-leading rusher with 427 yards and four touchdowns. Mike Tolbert (247 yards) would likely fill in for McCoy, but is a plodding runner compared to the electric McCoy. Marcus Murphy made his season debut on Sunday, rushing for 41 yards. He has eight career carries in the NFL.
"You never replace a player like LeSean," McDermott said. "I've got a lot of confidence in Mike Tolbert and Murph and whoever else we put in the backfield. They did a nice job this past weekend and I expect them to do the same moving forward."
McCoy did not practice Wednesday. McDermott did say McCoy is maximizing his treatment opportunities.
McCoy's absence would put immense pressure on Taylor and the Bills' 31st ranked passing offense.
"We want the best for Shady," Taylor said. "If he's healthy, we want him absolutely to be out there playing and giving us his all. If he's not, we have a tremendous group of guys in the backfield that would be able to step in and carry the load. Of course, Shady's a special playmaker. You miss him if he's not out there, but at the same time, we can't use it as an excuse."
Defensively, Buffalo ranks 30th in stopping the run. That should give the Jaguars offense hope after two consecutive losses to close the regular season. The Jaguars lead the NFL in rushing offense and are fifth in scoring.
Point differential really separates the teams. The Jaguars are plus-149. That's second best in the AFC behind New England and tied for third in the NFL. Buffalo is minus-57. There are nine teams that didn't qualify for the playoffs with a better number.
Still, the Jaguars have shown a penchant lately for turnovers -- the stat that will be above all others on Sunday. Quarterback Blake Bortles has thrown five interceptions the last two games and the team has committed seven turnovers in that span.
"Everyone realizes it's your last chance," Bortles said. "If you lose, you go home. It's over. So there's no reason and no excuse to not play as hard as you can every single play, but I think our guys do that on a weekly basis anyways and I'm excited to go out there for this opportunity."
The Jaguars finished the season tied for fifth in turnover margin at plus-10. The Bills are plus-9, one of their few impressive stats.
"This is the start of a different type of season," Marrone said. "This is 12 teams. Every one of those teams has overcome something during the year and has earned the right to be here. Every one of those teams is dangerous and it comes down to how you perform on that Sunday."
Updated January 3, 2018