The New York Times was not kind to the Buffalo Bills a couple months ago. Here was that institution’s lead paragraph from the Bills’ 21-12 win over the New York Jets in Week One: “In a season-opening showdown between two of the least-promising teams in the N.F.L., the Buffalo Bills beat the Jets, 21-12, on Sunday and, because of an upset and a natural disaster, will spend the next week alone atop the A.F.C. East standings.”
The expectations are a little bit different now, aren’t they? Not only are the 5-2 Bills one of the NFL’s surprise teams, the Jets have shown they’re not the doormats most expected them to be, either.
A share of first place in the division is on the line for the Bills on Thursday night. A win would tie them with New England at 6-2 midway through the 2017 season — just as we all expected.
Here is how the Bills and Jets match up:
When the Bills run: Buffalo piled up a whopping 190 rushing yards in the season opener, averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 42 attempts. LeSean McCoy gained 110 of those yards. At that time, it looked like the Bills were on their way to another dominant season of running the ball, but it hasn’t always been that easy. The team hit a rut after facing the Jets, but appears to have fixed itself after the bye weekend. “Last couple of weeks we’ve been rolling in the run game, we need to keep that going,” McCoy said Tuesday. They should have a good chance of doing that against a Jets team that ranks 27th against the rush, allowing 128.3 yards per game. The Jets might also be with one of their best defensive players in lineman Muhammad Wilkerson, who is nursing a variety of injuries. EDGE: Bills.
When the Bills pass: It’s probably too soon to expect new addition Kelvin Benjamin to make a difference, so the Bills will need to rely on the likes of Jordan Matthews and Zay Jones against a pass defense that ranks 26th in yards allowed per game, at 361.4. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has completed 20 passes in each of the last three games, helped by protection that has allowed just one sack over the last two weeks. With just 11 sacks in eight games, New York isn’t applying much pressure to opposing quarterback. The Jets might also be without cornerback Morris Claiborne, which will make things even more difficult for them. Rookie safeties Marcus Made and Jamal Adams have had some growing pains, but should be long-time starters. EDGE: Even.
When the Jets run: Bilal Powell, Matt Forte and Elijah McGuire have combined for 687 yards rushing on 165 attempts, an average of 4.1 yards per carry. Not bad when you look at just how bad the run blocking has been for much of the season. Those are respectable numbers considering every member of the Jets’ offensive line has a negative grade in run blocking according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. The Bills’ rush defense ranks third in yards per game, allowing just 80.1. Defensive tackle Kyle Williams was a rock against the Raiders in Week Eight. EDGE: Bills.
When the Jets pass: New York’s receivers have been surprisingly productive. Jermaine Kearse has 29 catches for 342 yards and four touchdowns, while Robby Anderson is an impressive deep-ball threat who has 435 yards on 27 grabs, with three touchdowns. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins is the team’s leading receiver with 31 catches. Quarterback Josh McCown is playing surprisingly well, completing 70.5 percent of his passes and averaging 7.2 yards per attempt. The good news for the Bills is that their secondary has a chance at being healthier than it was last week, with safety Jordan Poyer questionable for the game. The Bills are allowing 266.4 passing yards per game, but that’s the style of their defense. They are willing to give up some yardage in zone, betting that teams can’t finish off 15-play drives. EDGE: Even.
Special teams: The Bills forced two fumbles, one of which they recovered, in the return game against the Raiders. Wide receiver Andre Holmes has been an underrated contributor. He had three tackles last week, while Taiwan Jones has done a good job as the gunner in coverage. Punter Colton Schmidt dropped a beauty out at the 1-yard line against the Raiders, while kicker Stephen Hauschka has been solid all year. The Jets’ kick- and punt-return units are both ranked near the bottom of the NFL. Punter Loc Edwards is averaging 42.5 net yards. EDGE: Bills.
Coaching: Coach Sean McDermott has the Bills, and the team’s fans, craving their next hit of “process.” McDermott is pressing all the right motivational buttons, while at the same time doing a good job with the game-management elements of the job like controlling the clock and knowing when to be aggressive (like going for a touchdown on fourth down against the Raiders from the 1-yard line, instead of settling for a field goal). Playing a division opponent on the road on a short week is the next challenge for McDermott and his staff. The Jets have led in the fourth quarter of their last three losses, so coach Todd Bowles has them playing hard, even if they aren’t finishing. EDGE: Bills.
Prediction: Bills 28, Jets 16