The final week of the regular season did more than just set the wild-card matchups. It also offered insights into what could determine each team’s playoff fate. Here’s a breakdown of the key takeaways, from LeSean McCoy’s injury to JuJu Smith-Schuster’s continued emergence.
With the playoff now field in place, I decided to do something a little different with this edition of the Starting 11. On Monday, I analyzed which Week 17 developments could have the biggest ramifications beyond the wild-card round. In this file, as a way to look ahead to the postseason, I’m making one observation about every playoff team that at least kind of tried Sunday (sorry, Rams) and considering the impact it might have moving forward. Let’s get right into it.
1. LeSean McCoy’s ankle injury could be a cruel twist for the playoff-bound Bills. There’s so much to love about Buffalo making the postseason for the first time in 18 years. The footage of the Bills watching the Bengals’ game-winning touchdown against the Ravens was heartwarming, and veteran defensive tackle Kyle Williams’s reaction was perfect. Williams, had who scored his first career touchdown earlier Sunday, has played 12 seasons in Buffalo and made the Pro Bowl five times. This is his first trip to the playoffs. It was obvious how much that meant.
The Bills going beyond just that happy-to-be-here feeling was always going to be a tall order in a wild-card round matchup at Jacksonville; if McCoy is forced to miss the game because of an ankle injury sustained in the third quarter of a 22–16 win in Miami, that task will grow even tougher. Buffalo’s offense is not a modicum of efficiency. The team ranks 26th in Football Outsiders’ offensive DVOA, down in the dregs with units led by backup or rookie quarterbacks — and this guy. The Bills’ best hope of finding success against the league’s top defense lies in McCoy and Tyrod Taylor conjuring unstructured plays. Their ability to create yardage seemingly out of nothing gives Buffalo its offensive upside. That upside will be lowered substantially if Marcus Murphy — who got the first carries of his three-year NFL career on Sunday — is forced to carry the load.
2. The Bills are heavy underdogs in Jacksonville, but they have a shot at pulling off the upset if Blake Bortles stays in his funk. A week after throwing three interceptions in a 44–33 loss to the 49ers, the Jaguars quarterback recorded two picks in Sunday’s 15–10 loss to Tennessee. While the second came on a desperation heave with less than a minute remaining in regulation, the first was inexplicable. Facing a third-and-9 early in the fourth quarter, Bortles tossed a ball off his back foot and down the left sideline, where it was easily hauled in by Titans safety Kevin Byard.
This was the sort of decision an NFL quarterback just can’t make — at any time, for any reason. For those who bought into the Bortles mirage in early December, when he combined for seven touchdowns and no interceptions in wins over the Colts, Seahawks, and Texans … well, I have some Florida swampland to sell you. The only reliable aspect to Bortles’s game is that it’s unreliable.
Jacksonville’s Super Bowl hopes were never going to rely on Bortles suddenly transforming into a star quarterback midway through his fourth season. They’ve always rested on the team catching the right version of him on a given day, and for the past two weeks that guy has been nowhere to be found. The worst part about Bortles’s outing against the Titans is that the interceptions were only part of what made it terrible. He completed just 15 of 34 passes, and nearly half of his 158 yards came via screen passes to Leonard Fournette. The Jags got nothing going through the air against a Tennessee group ranked 24th in passing defense DVOA.
The Jaguars’ climb to contender status was the most interesting element in the AFC this season. But the sneaking suspicion that their quarterback could doom their title hopes might turn out to be right.
3. Titans safety Kevin Byard could be a difference-maker in the playoffs. The 2016 third-round draft pick started only seven games as a rookie. This season was his first as a full-time starter, and he’s proved to be quite the find for Tennessee. By corralling two more picks Sunday, Byard finished with the 2017 campaign with a league-leading eight. Interception totals can occasionally be fluky, but Byard’s represents how consistently excellent he’s been in coverage.