Here are my five takes on Sunday’s game between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets at Ralph Wilson Stadium:
1. How much will keeping the Jets out of the playoffs mean to anyone not named Rex Ryan? The players have been saying all of the right things about having some extra motivation to give their best effort. Boobie Dixon went a bit too far with that theme by calling the game the Bills’ “Super Bowl.” Nothing on the regular-season schedule should ever be described that way, especially for a franchise that actually played in a bunch of Super Bowls. But we get the point. The question is, do the players really believe in what they’re saying or is it mere lip service? The performance should provide an unequivocal answer.
You have at least one player, defensive end Mario Williams, who knows that the team intends for this to be his final game. You have a forecast calling for snow and temperatures around the freezing mark. You have a battered Bills roster. You have a healthier Jets team with every reason to play its very best. You have a large number of secondary market tickets that have been purchased by Jets fans. In short, you have conditions that are ripe for a lopsided loss by the home team.
2. Can the Bills do a good enough job of covering the Jets’ dynamic receiving duo of Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker? The best news here is that cornerback Ronald Darby is expected to return from the groin injury that kept him out of last Sunday’s victory against Dallas. He will spend the majority of his time lined up against Marshall. The Bills did a good job with Marshall when the teams met on Nov. 12, limiting him to three receptions (on 10 targets) for 23 yards, although 14 came on a touchdown catch. Darby excelled at being physical with Marshall, highlighted by his crucial open-field tackle of the receiver for a 2-yard loss on fourth and 2 from the Buffalo 20-yard line early in the fourth quarter.
The bad news here is that Leodis McKelvin is again starting in place of Stephon Gilmore, who is on the injured-reserve list. Gilmore was a key factor in the earlier game against the teams. McKelvin, who could very well be playing his final game for the Bills, has shown multiple times this season that he can be a liability in coverage.
Injuries have caused the Bills’ secondary depth to be severely challenged, and Jets offensive coordinator Chan Gailey will undoubtedly look to exploit that with his frequent use of four-receiver sets. Decker, who is at his best when operating from the slot, should seemingly benefit the most from facing the likes of Mario Butler and Nickell Robey. Bud Noel, who was elevated from the practice squad this week, is also likely to be targeted by Gailey and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
3. The offensive line holds its own in pass protection against one of the better defensive lines in the NFL. When the teams last met, the Jets sacked Tyrod Taylor four times and were credited with eight quarterback hits. Muhammad Wilkerson had two of the sacks, showing incredible speed (given his 6-foot-4, 315-pound frame) to chase down arguably the NFL’s fastest quarterback on one. Taylor’s 14 runs against the Cowboys last Sunday were far too many because they enhanced his exposure to injury. He also tends to resist sliding, choosing instead to gain as many yards as possible before going out of bounds. That’s probably a bad idea against a big, nasty front that might not exactly hate the idea of delivering some damaging shots to next season’s likely starter for a division rival.
4. Karlos Williams and Mike Gillislee keep up their impressive running against the No. 1 run-stopping defense in the league. In the earlier game at MetLife Stadium, the Bills ran effectively, with LeSean McCoy having one of his three 100-plus-yard performances (112 in each case, to be exact) of the season. McCoy will miss his second game in a row and fourth of the season with a knee injury, so it will be up to Williams and Gillislee to do what they did against the Cowboys and make McCoy’s absence a non-factor.
The chore will, of course, require the line to again be at the very top of its game. And there is reason to think this gritty group will step up to the challenge. As with most offensive linemen, they thrive on a game plan that calls for them to concentrate more on opening holes rather than protecting the passer. They have the capability, mentally and physically, to take the brawling-style approach necessary to control the tempo of the game. They also feed off the energy of Williams and Gillislee, who are eager to take full advantage of sharing the rushing stage and reminding the Bills they can perform every bit as well – if not better than – the $16-million back who is not playing.
5. How about the Bills generating even a little bit of pressure on Ryan Fitzpatrick? Is that possible? In November, the Bills sacked their former quarterback once and were credited with three hits. Overall, they did do a good job against him by intercepting two of his 34 pass attempts and helping to limit his completions to only 15 for a quarterback rating of 57.6. But strong pressure is the order of the day, because the Jets’ best chances for winning this game are going to come down to whether Fitzpatrick can beat the Bills with his passing arm. His awkward delivery and tendency to force throws into tight spaces have a way of creeping into his game when the heat is on.
But will the Bills produce that heat from a line that includes at least one player potentially having almost no motivation to be on the field and others who continue to have issues with a defensive scheme that doesn’t suit them? Ryan finally admitted, in a conference call with New York media last Wednesday, those complaints bothered him. Figuring out how to make them go away is likely to be among his higher priorities of the offseason.