After the Thursday night debacle in Denver, the (5-5) New York Jets will host the (5-5) Buffalo Bills in a match up of reeling AFC East teams. The winner will take second place in the division, but there are more significant implications afloat. With a victory, the Jets would remain firmly in the wild card picture. However, a loss would be disastrous, making this game the start of a series of must-wins. Take the jump for the pivotal players and match ups.
For the second time in four weeks, the Jets will battle the Bills in a very important game. New York made a statement in Week 8, dominating a then (5-2) Bills team 28-11 in a game that wasn't even that close. Mark Sanchez played well, throwing for 230 yards and a touchdown to Santonio Holmes, and Shonn Greene ran for 76 yards on only 19 carries. More importantly, the defense came through in a big way. Fred Jackson was limited to 82 yards (much less than the 103 yards per game that he was averaging), and Ryan Fitzpatrick was held to a 51.9 QB rating (1 TD, 2 INT, and a 48% completion percentage). The Jets' big win was expected to give them momentum, but they have lost both games following the contest. The Bills have lost both games as well, by a combined 79-15 point differential. Both teams are struggling, but the Bills are clearly in the bigger rut, especially with their recent injuries. The Jets haven't been playing well at all, but this game will present them with a good chance to turn their season around. There is potential for a blowout, depending on the health of a few key Bills...
- Bills' Medical Staff: The Buffalo Bills' medical staff is going to play a pivotal role this week. Fred Jackson has apparently been ruled out for this game, and might be out all year. As I wrote in the Keys to the first Jets-Bills contest, Fred Jackson is the 'straw that stirs the Bills' drink'. Even after last week's clunker against the Dolphins (7 carries for 17 yards before exiting with an injury), Jackson has averaged 5.5 yards per carry, and was on pace to reach 1500 yards rushing. He also contributes in the passing game, with 39 catches for 442 yards. He accounts for 40% of the Bills offense, so his loss will be a huge gain for the Jets. The bigger question now is the state of the receiving corps: Donald Jones is out for the year, and Steve Johnson, David Nelson, and Naaman Roosevelt all missed practice today. That is their top four receivers, making Brad Smith the de facto #1 at the Wednesday practice. Furthermore, starting safety George Wilson also missed practice, and will likely be replaced by rookie Da'Norris Searcy. Wilson has been playing great this season, with 79 tackles and 4 interceptions. His absence (along with Terrence McGee's, who is done for the year) will further worsen an already weak Buffalo secondary. The Bills' medical staff needs to work its magic, or this game can be over before it starts.
- Jets' Coaching Staff: On paper, the Jets have a far superior team. Simply put, there are no excuses this Sunday, not with an extra three days to prepare. Brian Schottenheimer had a good game plan against the Bills in Week 8, and the offense executed to perfection. The pass plays were working and the running backs had room to run. If Schottenheimer has another good week of coaching, the Jets offense has the potential to put up forty points. A Miami team led by Matt Moore scored 28 points in the first half against the weak Buffalo D, so another poor performance by the Jets offense would be unacceptable this week.
- Joe McKnight: On an offense that lacks explosiveness, Joe McKnight is akin to a breath of fresh air. He is a threat to break a long play every time he touches the ball, and he should continue to get increased touches with LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene banged up. He always seems to shine against the Bills, racking up 158 yards rushing against them last season, and returning a kickoff 59 yards this season. Buffalo has the 11th worst rushing defense, giving up 4.4 yards per carry. Furthermore, they have given up 10 runs of 20 yards or longer, which is the sixth most in the league. I disagreed with how the Jets used McKnight last week (usually running him between the tackles, rather than to the outside), but I expect that to change against the Bills. McKnight could be primed for a big game this week.
- Avoiding Unforced Errors: Despite having a shaky secondary, the Buffalo Bills have the second most interceptions in the league with 15. In Week 8, the Jets left seven points on the field with this stupid interception that looked like it was intended for the defender. The Buffalo secondary is very mediocre, giving up an opposing QB rating of 88.2 (8th worst in the NFL), and Sanchez will have holes to exploit, especially with the recent injuries. I believe that the Sanchize will bounce back this week, but the ballhawks on the Bills' D have a chance to turn the game around in a hurry.
If Gang Green has any postseason aspirations, every game from here on out is a must win. Luckily, this game appears to be a perfect storm for the Jets: it is at home, against a Bills team that has lost its confidence and many of their best players to injury. The Jets dominated on both sides of the ball in their first meeting, and have the ability to do it again. The Buffalo defense is mediocre against both the pass and the run, and Ryan Fitzpatrick has fallen back to earth after a hot start. The Jets have been getting killed by athletic tight ends, but the Bills do not possess anyone on the level of Rob Gronkowski (Scott Chandler is a good endzone target, but he is not a mismatch for the Jets' safeties). Wayne Hunter has exposed Sanchez to fierce pass rushes the past few weeks, but the Bills do not feature a talented edge rusher to give Hunter fits. The Jets and the Bills might have the same record, but New York is clearly the superior team.
Player to Watch: Mark Sanchez is about as embattled as any quarterback in the NFL. Despite showing improvement over his first few seasons, he is often labeled as the weak link of the roster. The criticism reached a new pinnacle last week after his poor performance against the Broncos, but I fully expect Sanchez to bounce back. He has shown incredible resiliency in his first two seasons, and always performs better when his back is against the wall. Yesterday in practice, Rex Ryan decided to send a message to his third year quarterback:
The coach [Rex Ryan] gave backup Mark Brunell a few first-team snaps in practice for the first time this season with the hope of motivating his struggling third-year quarterback. The superstitious Ryan tried the same ploy last year, which helped ignite Sanchez and propel the Jets into the playoffs.
- Per Manish Mehta, New York Daily News
It would be nice to have a backup quarterback that could actually threaten Mark Sanchez, but Mark Brunell will have to do for now. If the past two seasons are of any indication, Sanchez will rebound in a huge way this week. Watch for a big day from the third year pro, especially given the absence of Terrence McGee and George Wilson.
Player to Watch #2 (Bonus): Aaron Maybin did not register a sack in his first game against the team that drafted him, but he generated great pressure and played very solidly. Rex and Mike Pettine were blitzing Maybin on almost every play towards the end of that game, and I expect them to make a strong effort to design a few plays for "Mayhem". Similar to when LaDainian Tomlinson received a "ceremonial start" against the Chargers, I assume Maybin will get a few extra snaps this week. It wouldn't surprise me if he gets as many as two sacks this Sunday.
Player to Watch #3 (Bonus): In the Week 8 match up, Darrelle Revis was uncharacteristically burned by Steve Johnson for 3 catches and 84 yards, including this 52 yarder. Johnson is questionable with a bum shoulder, but his presence likely will not matter anyway. Revis is a competitor, and I guarantee that the Bills game is still on his mind. If Johnson plays, I predict that he will be held catchless.
Prediction: On paper, this looks to be a blowout. With Fred Jackson out, the Bills will be missing their main source of offense, and their defense has been struggling all year. The Jets have had extra time to practice for this game, and should be extra-motivated following an embarrassing loss to the Broncos. I hold out hope that the Jets are a good team in a slump, but a loss here would really signal an end to any postseason hopes. If the offense cannot have a big day here, it will be valid to claim that they are simply incapable. However, a victory would get us back on track, and I predict that it will not even be close. Sanchez throws for 300 yards and 2 TD, and McKnight breaks a big run or two. The Gang Green defense shuts down a wounded Buffalo offense, and the Jets gain momentum for the stretch run.