By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) - Another year, another steaming pile of spent optimism.
The same Buffalo Bills team that split its first four games and was a still- relevant 3-4 after seven weeks of largely competitive football with a exciting rookie quarterback is looking at a bleaker, though certainly familiar, forecast for the final three weekends of the 2013 NFL season.
Heading into a Week 15 visit to Jacksonville - and coming off a 27-6 road loss at Tampa Bay - the Bills are a team holding closed-door meetings and searching for a way to find purpose in what's left of a season that'll likely end with a sixth straight cellar-dwelling finish in the AFC East.
Buffalo will finish below .500 for a ninth straight year, is a loss away from double-digits for the fifth straight year and hasn't seen the playoffs since 1999.
"You look at where we stand right now, you can question everything," defensive tackle Kyle Williams said. "Everything's a red flag. Everything's discouraging right now. But we have to get guys, all of us, to respond and respond better."
Quarterback E.J. Manuel, that means you.
The first-year man from Florida State was a sparkplug for positivity in the early going, but neither he nor the team have been the same since the Week 5 loss at Cleveland in which he suffered a knee injury and subsequently missed four games.
The Bills were held to just 214 total yards against the Buccaneers - including 67 on the ground - and Manuel was sacked seven times. In nine games as a starter, he's been sacked 24 times and has completed less than 60 percent of his passes (57.8) with nine touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Buffalo is winless in four road games that he's started and have lost the last three while being outscored, 85-33, and while averaging just 246.7 total yards.
It's all added up to a less-than-ideal first year for coach Doug Marrone as well.
"Do I want to be standing here having to go through these pains of what's going on? Absolutely not," Marrone said. "But I've learned over the years that this is the stuff you go through. And you have to just put your head down and just keep working. He has the ability to do it. There's no doubt in my mind."
If any team understands the struggles the Bills are facing, it's the Jaguars.
Jacksonville was written off as among the worst NFL teams in history through an eight-game losing streak to begin the season - during which it came no closer to winning than a 10-point deficit at Oakland in Week 2.
Since the bye in Week 9, it's been a world of difference that's equated to four wins in five games and a fistful of confidence for the positives-first approach of first-year coach Gus Bradley.
A win Sunday would yield the franchise's first four-game win streak in six years.
"Our guys just really believe," Bradley said. "The biggest challenge is to keep doing what we're doing. We're a young team that's learning how to do this. I don't want us feeling like we did some good things, we accomplished some things. We're getting better and we still have a lot of work to do."
While it's true all four of the Jacksonville wins have come against teams with losing records - Tennessee, Houston, Cleveland and Houston - it's also true that the Jaguars have averaged 23 points per game in their last five (including a loss to Arizona) after scoring only 10.8 points per game while going 0 for the first eight.
A 27-20 win over the Texans last week ended a seven-game home losing streak and prompted some players to call out the media for a season-long critique of the team that's trended negative.
Running back Maurice Jones-Drew is questionable with a hamstring problem but has averaged 5.2 yards per carry in the last three games while compiling 264 yards. If he's not ready, the Jaguars will insert Jordan Todman and Denard Robinson to fill the backfield role.
Todman caught a touchdown pass last week against Houston.
"They still talk trash about us," Jones-Drew said. "We are going to keep getting better and we are going to keep making plays. We are going to keep doing our thing and be happy for everyone around us."
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Running Down a Defense
The Bills, with all their faults, have been a generally effective team when it comes to running the football. C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson were held under wraps last week in Tampa, but the two of them - along with Manuel - have helped Buffalo reach second in the AFC with a per-week ground average of 133.6 yards.
Jacksonville, meanwhile, doesn't fare so well against run teams, as its 27th-place league standing - 126.8 ground yards per game - attests.
Some MJD on the Rocks
As the Bills' rushing game giveth, its rushing defense often taketh away. Buffalo is just one slot ahead of the Jaguars - 26th in the league - when it comes to stopping the run, meaning a recently revved-up Jones-Drew, provided he's healthy, could be a difference-maker.
The low-slung veteran has scored four times in five career games against the Bills. he'll also arrive Sunday on the heels of reaching 100 yards for the 27th time in his career, a circumstance in which Jacksonville is 19-8.
Matchup up the quarterbacks won't be ideal to determining the winner here. Chad Henne is at best a hot and cold option, while an occasionally dinged-up Manuel is providing every bit of the week-in, week-out mystery that usually accompanies a rookie.
Instead, it'll more likely come down to which team's run game is able to best exploit the other team's shoddy run defense. Momentum notwithstanding, it says here that the Bills have more options and more opportunity, especially if Jones-Drew is hampered by the balky hamstring.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Bills 20, Jaguars 14
12/12 12:47:19 ET
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