When the Buffalo Bills square off against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday afternoon, the stakes will be far lower than the last time these teams met. Since Jacksonville defeated the Bills 10-3 in the Wild Card Round of the playoffs last year, kick-starting a run to the AFC Championship game that very nearly led to the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance, each team has experienced a reversal of fortunes.
With identical 3-7 records, both teams are struggling to compete consistently. Horrendous offensive showings, especially from the quarterback position, have been a constant in both teams’ seasons, while highly-touted running backs have struggled to gain traction in both teal and royal blue.
The Bills have a few players returning from injury this week, and others who will be filling in thanks to injuries ahead of them on the depth chart. As a result, there are plenty of players of interest for fans to watch during the game. Here are our top five.
QB Josh Allen
The linchpin to the Bills’ future success is No. 17, and his return from an elbow sprain suffered six weeks ago signals a return to hope for Bills fans. Allen was struggling before his injury, especially with identifying pressure and sliding protections as a result. He often held the ball too long, and when he wasn’t holding the ball, he often abandoned plays early in order to use his legs rather than his arm. Hopefully, some time off the field allowed the young rookie to study his mistakes and learn from veterans Derek Anderson and Matt Barkley. The offense looked quite different against the New York Jets, as offensive coordinator Brian Daboll appeared to open things up for Barkley. If that continues, Allen has an opportunity to make an instant splash in front of the hometown fans, but it will be no walk in the park—the Jaguars boast one of the league’s best defenses, so the rookie has a big challenge on his plate. I’m excited to see how he responds.
RB LeSean McCoy
If only for one week, McCoy looked like the Shady of old, shredding the Jets to the tune of 113 yards, two touchdowns, and a 4.35 yards per carry average. Was McCoy’s success a fluke caused by the Jets’ apathetic performance in the game? Was it caused by Daboll’s use of misdirection? Was it because of Matt Barkley’s, um, competence? The Jags are a middle-of-the-pack rush defense, allowing 109.3 rushing yards per game on a 4.1 yards-per-carry average. If Allen can make Jacksonville play off the line of scrimmage a bit, it could allow McCoy to have another great day. Otherwise, Shady will need to create his own lanes.
WR/KR/PR Isaiah McKenzie
The diminutive wideout had a great debut for Buffalo against the Jets, rushing for 32 yards on three carries, catching one pass for 14 yards, as well as returning a kickoff for 33 yards and four punts for 42 yards. He seems to be the movable piece the team thought it had in rookie Ray-Ray McCloud III. With another two weeks to acclimate to the offense, look for Brian Daboll to unleash the speedy utility player even more on Sunday.
TE Jason Croom
With Charles Clay listed as doubtful due to a hamstring injury, it seems likely that the veteran won’t play for the second straight game. Croom started in Clay’s place against the Jets and played on more snaps than Logan Thomas; the second-year tight end played 60% of Buffalo’s offensive snaps, while Thomas logged 41% of the action. Neither player made much of an impact in the box score, as Croom wasn’t targeted in the passing game, and Thomas made only one catch for one yard. Against a Jacksonville defense with outstanding outside defenders in Jalen Ramsey and A.J. Bouye, Buffalo would be wise to look to the middle of the field for success in the passing game. Their best receiver, Zay Jones, should see plenty of targets in the slot, but the team’s athletic tight ends could create positive match-ups against linebackers, safeties, or slot corners. As a former wide receiver, Croom should be able to take advantage of his athleticism and have a solid day.
DE Jerry Hughes
Buffalo’s best pass rusher has a prime match-up this week, as the Jaguars’ offensive line is full of injured players. Thanks to injuries to starting left tackle Cam Robinson and backup Josh Walker, Jacksonville will start Ereck Flowers to protect Blake Bortles’s blindside. The former New York Giants first-round pick flamed out in New Jersey after consistently allowing opponents to badger quarterback Eli Manning. Hughes should be able to disrupt Jacksonville’s offense throughout the day, which means Buffalo’s stop unit should see some success.