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Is third time really the charm and your NFL Wildcard Sunday preview

Sunday night’s NFL action sees the Bills travel to Jacksonville and New Orleans host the Panthers.

Buffalo Bills (9-7) @ Jacksonville Jaguars (10-6) – Sunday, 6.05pm

Source: PA Archive/PA Images

How did they get here?

IT HAS BEEN a long time since either of these two sides played meaningful January football and with the Jags naming Blake Bortles as starting QB and the Bills getting rid of most of Tyrod Taylor’s weapons, few would have expected this would be the year that changed.

But credit to Buffalo and their young coach Sean McDermott. They took advantage of a terrible AFC to make the postseason despite inexplicably benching Taylor midway through the season when they were in playoff contention. They’re here thanks, in large part, to their quarterback so dropping him is still a confusing decision.

For Jacksonville, they’ve morphed into the Denver Broncos of two seasons ago, overcoming so-so quarterback play with the elitist of elite defences. And nobody will want to play them over the coming weeks.

How do the Bills win?

Source: Jim Rassol/PA Images

Shady dealings. The good news for Bills fans is that LeSean McCoy looks like he’s going to suit up in this game. The bad news is that the only thing we definitely know is that he’s carrying some sort of ankle injury, we just don’t know how bad it is.

However, as NFL Network reported on Thursday, Shady was named on the injury report 12 times this season out of 16 games. In each of those dozen games he averaged 37 yards more than he did when he was supposedly healthy.

How do the Jaguars win?

Source: UPI/PA Images

Never change. It’s boring, but it’s true. If we know one thing about Jacksonville this season, it’s that key to their success is building a lead early, use the ground game to kill the clock and have their elite pass defence force turnovers.

If Jacksonville fall behind by nine points or more, however, does anyone trust Bortles to get them back in the game? I certainly don’t.

Who will win? 

Both games this weekend have already featured significant upsets so would it be a surprise to anyone if Buffalo caused another? However, while I think the Bills will cover the 8.5-point spread, I do think the Jaguars will come out on top.

Carolina Panthers (11-5) @ New Orleans Saints (11-5) – Sunday, 9.40pm

Source: David T. Foster Iii/PA Images

How did they get here?

Despite having the exact same record, this season has felt – for what that’s worth – like one in which the Saints have thoroughly outplayed their NFC South divisional rivals.

They both won just four games against other playoff teams this season, but three of New Orleans’ wins came against divisional rivals — including two against Carolina — so perhaps that’s why?

Either way, both lost on the final weekend of the season, without resting starters, so will be looking to get back into their groove in this game.

How do the Panthers win?

Go to Greg. For the first time against the Saints this season, the Panthers will have Greg Olsen on the field. The tight end has struggled with injury all year and has only one game this season where he looked like the player we’ve come to expect; a nine-catch, 116-yard performance against the Packers in week 15; a game that included his only touchdown of the season.

In his other seven games combined, Olsen had just eight catches for 75 yards. The Saints defence is a lot better than the Packers one, but that kind of big day is needed — as it will surely mean Cam’s having a good day through the air in general — if the Panthers are to have any hope.

How do the Saints win?

Source: Dan Anderson/PA Images

Defence. I can’t believe I’ve just written that word but, in November this year, after moving to 6-2 with a win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Saints ranked 15th in total defence. This marked the first time New Orleans were ranked out of the 20s or 30s in total defence for a single week since the end of 2013 season, a string of 60 straight regular season weeks.

A lot of credit for that should go to former Raiders head coach Dennis Allen for improving the unit, while the likes of defensive lineman Cam Jordan is in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year and corner Marshon Lattimore almost a lock to win Defensive Rookie of the Year thanks to his performances.

Who will win? 

There has been a lot of talk this week about how difficult it is to beat a team for a third time in one season but the stats — the team that won the first two games wins the third 66% of the time — suggest that’s not true. The Saints have owned Carolina this season and I expect them to cover the 6.5-point spread today.

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Steve O'Rourke

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