Two weeks ago, everything went right for the Buffalo Bills - right up until they lost to Atlanta, putting a seriously large nail into the team's 2013 season coffin. Then they lost again last week, to Tampa Bay, falling to 4-9 on the season and 1-3 since starting quarterback EJ Manuel returned to the lineup.
Believe it or not, the Bills are still mathematically alive in the AFC playoff race - but they certainly don't act like it. They were listless in last week's horrible loss, and they've already begun rotating young, project players into the lineup into spots for evaluation purposes heading into the off-season. Today, they take on a Jacksonville Jaguars team that sports the same 4-9 record as Buffalo, but that may very well be heading in the direction that the Bills hope gravitate toward over the last three weeks.
Road woes (continued)
In last week's preview, we discussed the fact that the Bills had managed to win just one game in contests played away from Ralph Wilson Stadium, including their "home" loss in Toronto. Adding in last weekend's 27-6 drubbing at the hands of the Bucs in Tampa Bay, the Bills are now 1-6 in non-Ralph games this season. They've been outscored by 73 points in those games. Sooner or later, the Bills need to play well in a road game. Why not start today in Jacksonville?
Both the Bills and the Jaguars come into this game a bit beat up. On Buffalo's side of the equation, rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso is the name to watch; he's questionable with a knee injury that limited his practice participation all week, and while he's expected to play, there's also a chance that his perfect streak of snaps played will come to an end today. Starting right guard Kraig Urbik is also questionable with a foot ailment; whether or not he plays, expect to see a lot of J.J. 'Unga in his place.
Cecil Shorts III, the Jaguars' top wide receiver, was listed as questionable for this game with a groin injury, but he won't play, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Two more Jaguars starters are listed as doubtful: running back Maurice Jones-Drew and rookie safety Jonathan Cyprien. Jones-Drew and Shorts are the Jaguars' two best offensive weapons; if neither can go, it'll put a lot of pressure on an offense that already struggles moving the football.
Run and stop the run
Bills fans should know better than to chalk up an easy win for the Bills' embattled run defense if Jones-Drew doesn't play. Jacksonville has a talented backup in Jordan Todman, and Buffalo has a long history of turning little-known backups into stars. Tampa Bay ran for 165 yards last weekend, making it nine times in 13 tries that Bills opponents have rushed for 120 yards or more as a team in 2013. Add in the injury concerns with Alonso, and it might not matter who's lined up in the backfield for Jacksonville.
Similarly, the Bills were held to 67 rushing yards against Tampa Bay, and a large chunk of those came from Manuel, who was running for his life most of the day (he took seven sacks in the defeat). Buffalo began the season with six straight 120-plus rushing yard performances, but they've since been held under 100 yards in five of seven games. Jacksonville's run defense gives up 126.8 yards per game - two more than even Buffalo's - so the Bills should be expecting C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to get back on track on Sunday. If they can't, it could be another very long day for Manuel.
It's snuck up on us a bit, but the Bills have a pretty serious turnover problem, and it (hopefully) reached its peak last week when the team turned the ball over five times in the loss to Tampa Bay. (Four of those were Manuel interceptions.) The Bills have completely avoided turnovers as an offense just twice this season, and both of those games came against the New York Jets. More to the point, they've committed multiple turnovers in four of their last five games, with last week's five a season high. Clearly, that's an area that the team could stand to improve upon as quickly as possible.
I'm already on record picking the Bills this week, and here's why: pure gut feeling. Everything tangible seems to be working against the Bills in this contest, with the lone exception being the injury report. We know what the Bills need to do to win: run and stop the run, limit turnovers, and let their natural talent take over from there. Those have, for whatever reason, been tremendously difficult tasks for the team to pull off this season. So when I pick a 27-24 Bills win, I do so with the caveat that my gut is often wrong. The Bills have an awful lot to prove today.