There’s something special about opening day, no matter what the expectations are for an NFL team.
Tailgating plus good weather equals optimism – at least before kickoff. The good feelings should continue for the Buffalo Bills and their fans on Sunday when the New York Jets visit New Era Field. The Bills are heavy favorites in the first game of the Sean McDermott Era against a team many view as having the inside track at the No. 1 overall draft pick next April.
Here is how the Bills and Jets match up:
When the Bills run: Get ready for Shady right, Shady left and Shady up the middle. Over and over again. The Bills’ rushing attack will be centered on LeSean McCoy, who shows no signs of slowing down even at 29. Asked about McCoy’s work load Wednesday, McDermott said the Bills will do “whatever it takes to win the game.” Translation: Lots of Shady. The Bills will take a “committee approach to backing up McCoy, meaning Mike Tolbert and Joe Banyard could get work against a Jets’ run defense that was stout in 2016, allowing just 3.69 yards per carry (fourth in the NFL). EDGE: Bills.
When the Bills pass: Who can forget the instant classic the last time these two teams met, when EJ Manuel got the start? Sorry to bring up bad memories. Tyrod Taylor is cleared from concussion protocol and good to go for the season opener, with an entirely new set of receivers to throw to this year. That includes Jordan Matthews, the projected No. 1 who practiced for all of 15 minutes with the Bills before suffering a sternum injury after coming over in a trade with the Eagles. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the passing game sputter early in the season while Taylor gets his timing down. The Jets’ secondary might have a budding star in rookie safety Jamal Adams, but the starting cornerback duo of Morris Claiborne and Buster Skrine isn’t very impressive. EDGE: Bills.
When the Jets run: Matt Forte is probably getting mail from AARP, but he’s back for another season. He’s listed as the starter, but Bilal Powell took over as the featured back late in 2016, and that’s expected to continue. Even though they’re both up there in age (Forte is 31, Powell is 28), the Jets were the only team to have a pair of running backs put up 1,000 yards from scrimmage each in 2016. New play caller John Morton would be wise to lean on them again. The Bills’ run defense looked solid in the preseason, allowing just 3.11 yards per carry (third in the NFL). The front seven will have to prove they can do that when the games matter now. EDGE: Jets.
When the Jets pass: Avert your eyes! This figures to be ugly all season. New York is going with 38-year-old Josh McCown as the starting quarterback, mainly because backups Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg didn’t claim the job. New York’s top two receivers are Jermaine Kearse and Robby Anderson. They might be the No. 3 receiver on just about any other team. Sunday will be the first look at the Bills’ rebuilt secondary, which includes first-round draft pick Tre’Davious White at cornerback. EDGE: Bills.
Special teams: The Bills rebuilt here in the offseason, right down to a new long snapper (Reid Ferguson). New kicker Stephen Hauschka had a good summer, and was named a team captain. He should be an upgrade over Dan Carpenter. Brandon Tate is back as the primary kick and punt returner, although fellow receiver Kaelin Clay may push for one of those jobs in time. As might be expected for a roster as talent deficient as the Jets, special teams looks like a big weakness heading into 2017. EDGE: Bills.
Coaching: Todd Bowles is in a tough spot. The Jets have been widely accused of “tanking” the 2017 season after letting go a number of high-priced veterans and trading away defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. If the Jets do indeed bottom out, it would accomplish getting into position to draft a potential franchise quarterback in 2018, but likely cost Bowles his job. McDermott, on the other hand, has very little pressure on him in 2017. The Bills are in a rebuild, and he’s guaranteed another year on the job no matter what his record is. Sunday will be his first time in charge of the sideline in a game that counts. EDGE: Even.
Prediction: Bills 24, Jets 13