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Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6)

The early game on Sunday is also probably the unlikeliest if you had asked anyone before the start of the season as it features the Bills breaking a seventeen season streak of not making the playoffs travelling to Jacksonville to face a Jaguars team who themselves haven’t played a playoff game in ten years.

The Jaguars stuck with interim head coach Doug Marrone having fired Gus Bradley during last season and brought Tom Coughlin back to help in the front office. The change has worked with a couple of further additions to an already talented defence creating a unit that led the league by DVOA and that has carried the team through the season. The only problem has been that the offence has been so focussed on running the ball and limiting quarterback Blake Bortles that this is not a team built to come from behind. With the league’s best passing defence this has not been a problem during the regular season but could be an issue in the playoff as the level of competition increases and they face some of the best offences in the league.

The Bills come into this game after the high of breaking a streak of missing the playoff but I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that happening during an offseason where the new regime overhauled the roster, trading away known names as they started again. This continued into the season and it was clear that a long term project was under way and that the team wanted a particular type of player on the roster. The main talk surrounding first year head coach Sean McDermott was his decision to start Nathan Peterman in week eleven. The rookie quarterback threw five interceptions and the game was lost horribly but to McDermott’s credit he did not lose the team after this debacle and nearly everything else has been impressive about the way the Bills have competed in his first year. Their offence may only be ranked twenty-sixth in the league by DVOA, but they can run the ball and Tyrod Taylor may be conservative but he does not turn the ball over. In LeShaun McCoy the Bills have a running back that can break big runs but he is carrying an ankle injury coming into this game and whilst it looks like he will start, a back that is successful because of their lateral movement and explosiveness is definitely going to be affected by an ankle problem. This is a shame given that the Jaguars rank a surprising twenty-sixth against the run. The Bills defence is sold rather than spectacular but did generate twenty-five turn overs, which was eleventh in the league.

In this battle of playoff underdogs my heart wants the Bills to win, but the head thinks that the Jaguars are the better team. If Blake Bortles has a bad game and McCoy can show some of his top form then the Bills can win this game, but they really need further improvements to truly compete and I would expect the Jaguars to win this one.

This game does represent want the NFL wants, competitive balance with every team truly able to sell to their fans that next season we can make the playoffs..

Carolina Panthers ((11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (11-5)

The final game of the weekend looks to be one of the most competitive as two division rivals with matching records face off against each other.

The Carolina Panthers have had a strange season where their defence has looked good all year, finishing sixth by DVOA but the offence has been up and down all season. An early attempt to change the way Cam Newton plays did not work and it was only when they went back to running him that the offence was truly effective. The problem with this is that unlike the season where he led this team to the Super Bowl, Newton’s play has been erratic and he has put in some truly bad passing performances. However, he is a truly dynamic player that can wreak havoc running the ball and he is likely to need to as his receiving options are not playing that well currently and his favourite receiver Greg Olson has not returned to his usual form since returning from the foot injury that kept the tight end out for most of the season. The Panthers do have a dynamic rookie receiving running back in Christian McCaffrey but with the evolution of the offence it doesn’t feel like the Panthers have a clear overall plan and so he has flashed his undoubted skill rather than dominated.

The Panthers travel to face a Saints team who have demonstrated just how quickly a team can turn round in the NFL. The Saints were coming off three seasons of 7-9 and seemed to be wasting the end of Drew Brees Hall of Fame career as they could not surround him with a defence that could make the team competitive. The highlights of this turn around are two players who could arguably be offensive and defensive rookie of the year. In running back Alvin Kamara they have an efficient complement to Mark Ingram who is truly terrifying in space and has the hands to help Drew Brees in the short passing game. In Marshone Lattimore they have a rookie corner who looks anything but a rookie and although it took a few weeks for the defence to gel, they finished the season ranked eighth in the league by DVOA and the Saints were overall number one as well.

The easy narrative for this game is that it is hard to beat a team three times in a row, but football is a game of matchups and in both of their previous games the Saints have scored thirty points and won the game. The Panthers have been one of the more aggressive teams in the league in terms of blitzing and the Saints have been pretty similar in this aspect of defence, but Brees is a much more precise quarterback and is better equipped to exploit the quick passes necessary to disarm the blitz. Newton is more than capable of using his legs to gain yards and avoid pressure but it feels like the Panthers, whilst being competitive are less likely to win this game.

I am very much looking forward to seeing how this game unfolds, but I do expect the Saints to run out winners for a third time.