TAMPA -- Back in April, the Buffalo Bills' upcoming two-game stretch had to look appealing. Back-to-back Florida trips, in December? Not bad.
But now, things are different. The Bucs and Jaguars have combined to win seven of their last nine games, which could make the Bills underdogs in both contests.
Here's what to watch for Sunday in Tampa:
1. Monitoring Manuel: As we mentioned last week, the development of rookie EJ Manuel tops the Bills' priorities as they close out the season. Since returning from his injury, Manuel had a bad outing in Pittsburgh, played well against the Jets, and performed somewhere in-between last Sunday in Toronto. With four games left, the Bills need to see more consistency from Manuel. It's pounding a beaten drum at this point, but the Bills will only go so far in the coming seasons as their quarterback will take them.
2. Cleaning up against the run: What was an issue early in the season for Buffalo has cropped up again. The Bills have allowed 5.38 yards per carry over their last two games, the second-worst mark in the NFL over that stretch. Although we're past the point where it's a make-or-break issue for the Bills' hopes this season, it still has to be alarming for defensive coordinator Mike Pettine. The Bills have stayed virtually injury-free along their front seven and have some of the best talent in the NFL at those positions, so it's hard to point to personnel as the problem. On Sunday, tackling and containment are likely to be areas of focus. The Buccaneers have averaged 4.58 yards per carry over their past four games, which ranks in the top third of the NFL.
3. Sack record looms: The Bills are within striking range of breaking their franchise sack record, set in 1995. Currently, the Bills have an NFL-best 43 sacks, putting them on pace to surpass their previous mark of 49. The Buccaneers have allowed 33 sacks on the season, tied for the 12th-worst mark in the NFL. However, the Atlanta Falcons came into last Sunday's contest allowing the sixth-fewest sacks, but the Bills were still able to take down Matt Ryan six times. The Bills need 6.5 sacks to set a new franchise record, so it's a good bet we see that happen sometime over the next few games.
4. Effect on draft order: Don't expect the Bills to "tank" any of their final four games, but if they do lose, especially in the next two weeks, there is some benefit. The Bucs and Bills would pull even at 4-9 with a Bills loss, while the Jaguars are already 4-9 entering next Sunday's tilt with the Bills. Improving to 6-8 by Week 16 would be a positive step for a rebuilding team like Buffalo. Still, falling to 4-10 could also help them out. While the Houston Texans are on the fast track for the first overall pick, there is a glut of eight- and nine-loss teams "competing" for the second pick, including the Bills.