JACKSONVILLE – Senior writer John Oehser and senior correspondent Brian Sexton break down three Jaguars keys for Sunday’s AFC Wild Card game between the Jaguars and Buffalo Bills at EverBank Field
*1.Make plays when they’re there. *An obvious key in the Jaguars’ first home playoff game in 18 years is that they must run effectively. Their No. 1-ranked rushing offense has struggled in recent weeks, and the Bills’ defense has been vulnerable in that area. Just as important for the Jaguars Sunday: making big plays in the passing game when opportunities arise. The Jaguars’ young receivers were a major reason the team looked like a dangerous playoff team early in December, and those same receivers struggled in losses in the last two regular-season games. The thought here is the Jaguars’ running game will be effective Sunday, but not dominant – and that a big play or two will be needed from the passing game to get the Jaguars the lead. Someone in the receiver corps – rookie Dede Westbrook or rookie Keelan Cole most likely – must make the plays that weren’t made the last two weeks.
*2.Protect the ball. *This is key for any NFL offense any week, but it’s particularly true for the Jaguars this week. The Bills rank 26th in the NFL in yards allowed and struggled against the run much of the season, but they thrive on forcing turnovers and finished tied for fifth in the NFL with 18 interceptions. The Jaguars finished plus-10 in takeaway-giveaway margin, and spent the season among the league’s leaders in fewest giveaways – until seven turnovers in two losses to end the regular season. Nothing gives a visiting postseason team hope – and saps home-crowd momentum – more than the visiting team forcing an early turnover for an early lead. The better team in the postseason usually wins unless turnovers change momentum. The Jaguars are the better team in this matchup, so it’s paramount they play smart and as error-free as possible.
*3.Swarm, swarm, swarm. *The first two keys focused on offense, because there are many unknowns with that unit. The Jaguars’ defense is much more of a constant and the biggest constant about the area is this: when it has been at its best this season, it has played with a fury that has resulted in turnovers and sacks with that fury often resulting in one-sided victories. The guess here is the defense plays with as much energy as it has shown all season; the circumstances of playing at home in the team’s first postseason game in a decade will make that so. Can the Jaguars get a couple of early sacks? Can they get a turnover that makes the home crowd sense good things to come? This defense is capable of creating that sort of momentum. If it does, it’s hard to see this team losing Sunday.
1.Run the ball. This one is so easy but so important. The Jaguars’ formula for winning, from the very early going this season, was to use a powerful running game to force a defense to use all of its resources to stop them. It hasn’t been very powerful or reliable lately, and that should change against a Bills defense that’s not as stout after trading defensive tackle Marcell Dareus to the Jaguars in October. I would expect the Jaguars to have running backs Leonard Fournette, Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon all active and involved in the game plan. The passing game has carried the load longer than anyone envisioned without wide receiver Allen Robinson. It’s time for the pass to complement the run again and not the other way around.
2.Contain Tyrod Taylor. A year ago in Buffalo, the Jaguars struggled to keep the Bills’ mobile quarterback from beating them with his legs. He didn’t run a lot – only seven times for 38 yards – but it’s not about the yards. He scrambled away from pressure, converting third downs and extending drives by getting away from the rush. Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota did it to the Jaguars last week, and Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson was a handful last month. Taylor owns a powerful arm, and while his numbers are only so-so this season, he has the ability – as the Jaguars know – to extend plays and make things more difficult than necessary. It’s worth mentioning that while the Jaguars were playing good defense late last season when they faced the Bills, that Jaguars defense was not as good as this one.
*3.Live in the moment. *The 2017 was in many ways a special season for the Jaguars – and it isn’t over yet. The point: they must take advantage of where they are right now. This defense has been exceptional – and exceptionally healthy; it might not be so fortunate in 2018. The opponent might not be so favorable a matchup and … well, you get the point. No one thought this was going to be a Super Bowl season for the Jaguars when it began in September, and you might not believe it today – but nothing is guaranteed, even for a team with a future that looks as bright as that of the Jaguars. Appreciate where this team is and take advantage of the opportunity … ask the guys who lost the AFC Championship Game following the 1999 season if they would be back in 2000.