While the Bills look for a win against the New England Patriots to complete their first .500 or better season since 2004, Bills running backs Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson can find motivation in their chance to end the season atop the NFL.
Lynch and Jackson have combined for 83 receptions through Week 16, tied for first in the league with New Orleans running backs Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas. With Bush out for the season's final week with a sprained left knee, Lynch and Jackson are in position to surpass the New Orleans duo against the Patriots' 15th-ranked pass defense.
"When we talked about what we wanted to do this year, obviously we've been able to take advantage of it," Jackson said. "That's something we've worked hard at that we want to keep building off of."
After Lynch and Jackson combined for just 40 receptions in 2007, the increased production is exactly what Jackson was looking for. He said he and Lynch made a concerted effort entering the season to improve their pass-catching abilities so as to be more productive in the offense.
"That's something that we worked on all offseason," Jackson said. "We worked a lot with the receivers. That's something that I'm doing every week. Working with the receivers and with the running backs."
Jackson's skills have been most notable as of late. He entered last week's game in the second half after Lynch aggravated his bruised right shoulder, catching a 65-yard Trent Edwards pass that gave the Bills their first lead of the 30-23 win.
"When we do get in those passing down situations, they're going to try and match up with a linebacker, and there's not many linebackers in this league that can guard Fred and Marshawn," said Edwards. "That's my job as a quarterback, to read the secondary and try to get the ball to Lee and Josh and Rob and those guys, but if it's not there, I know in my back pocket, I have guys like Marshawn and Fred coming out of the backfield."
Wide receiver Josh Reed, one of only two players (Lee Evans) ranked ahead of Lynch and Jackson in receptions on the team, said having Jackson coming out of the backfield is like having another receiver in the lineup.
"He's not a running back, he's an athlete," Reed said. "When you have a guy that size with that strength being able to run it hard the way he does, he gives so much to the team."
That versatility means Jackson's receptions aren't just typical check down routes, either. Jackson ranks sixth in the league among running backs with nine yards per catch.
"That's something we feel like," Jackson said of his and Lynch's downfield attitude. "We feel like we run good enough routes to do that if called upon."
Lynch didn't practice Wednesday as his status remains unclear for Sunday. One thing is certain, though. If he does play Sunday, he will have a chance (with three receptions) to become the sixth running back in team history to post 50 or more receptions in a season.
Even with their deep threat capability, Jackson and Lynch aren't usually satisfied with just catching the ball. Both average 8.4 yards after the catch, ranking them both in the top 12 NFL running backs in average yards after the catch.
"Don't get tackled by the first guy. That's something that Marshawn and myself, we both pride ourselves on, getting yards after contact," Jackson said.
With the Patriots needing a win over the Bills this week and a New York Jets win over Miami to clinch a playoff berth, coach Bill Belichick knows his team's chances Sunday revolve around shutting down the duo. He said Lynch and Jackson are so dangerous because they excel in all facets of the game.
"They have no weaknesses," Belichick said. "They've got good quickness. They can get away from people. They run good routes, (they're) hard to cover, they're good in space, screen passes, check down (routes). I think they're both very complete backs that can play well in all situations. Running, passing game, protection, blocking. They're really good."
As Lynch and Jackson's numbers have improved, so has the Bills' offense. Moving up 10 spots in NFL pass ranking from 2007 to 2008, the Bills average 195 yards per game, 30 better than last year's mark.
"It's going to help across the board," guard Brad Butler said of the duo's improvement in the receiving category. "It's going to help with the pass game, it's going to help us run the ball well."
With Jackson not knowing how much of a role he'll have in the offense week-to-week, he said receptions are just one more way for him to get involved in the offensive game plan.
"You try and do as much as possible," Jackson said. "Whatever it's gonna do to help the offense that week, you want to step out on the field and do it."
Jackson's best receiving game came in the Bills' 20-16 win over Jacksonville in which he grabbed seven catches for 83 yards. Lynch grabbed 10 receptions for 58 yards and a touchdown in the Bills' 29-27 loss to Cleveland in Week 11.
With the Bills' offense seeing greater success when Lynch and Jackson are catching passes, Reed rejoices in one simple fact.
He said, "I'm just glad they're both on our team."