Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson set out to build a great football team 22 years ago. They reportedly decided to build a team that could beat the toughest team in the NFC. If the Dallas Cowboys could beat the toughest team, they could beat everyone else, so the logic went. That team was the Philadelphia Eagles. Whether or not that story is true, after getting routed early in the 1991 season, the Cowboys handled the Eagles routinely, beating them in the playoffs on their way to two Super Bowl victories.
Fast forward to the 2011 Buffalo Bills. Since winning the Mark Sanchez-sponsored Turnover Bowl in 2009, the Bills have lost four straight games to the New York Jets. The Jets have handled the Bills easily during the last three encounters. Ryan Fitzpatrick has played poorly in all four losses. The Jets are a solid team, having played in the last two conference championship games. They have beaten Tom Brady and the New England Patriots three times in the past two years. The Jets should be Buddy Nix's Eagles.
The Running Game. The Jets take away what a team does well. For Buffalo, that's running Fred Jackson. Take out Jackson's oh-by-the-way 23-yard run when the game was in hand for the Jets, and his numbers don't look good: 17 runs, 59 yards, and a 3.5 yards-per-carry average. Buffalo has been best spreading out the defense and pounding Jackson inside. The Jets are better when the offense puts more defensive backs on the field. The more backs, the more elaborate Rex Ryan's blitzes become. Chan Gailey's offense had more success running with tight ends on the field, particularly when Lee Smith and Scott Chandler played together. Nix and Gailey need to re-think this position. Chandler has been good and Smith holds promise, but both are probably better reserves than starters. A good tight end in the Heath Miller mold, who excels as an in-line blocker, may be one of the last pieces to Buffalo's offensive puzzle.
The Passing Game. In stud Darrelle Revis, Antonio Cromartie, and Kyle Wilson, the Jets have a fearsome trio of cover corners that make it very tough to throw to receivers. Stevie Johnson was contained. Outside of one tremendous effort by Johnson, Buffalo's deep game was shut down. The Jets defense gets a lot of media attention for their cover corners and blitzing, but a key to their defense are the underneath zones. The Jets take away the outside receivers while blitzing four or five rushers. That leaves as many as four defenders in coverage against no more than two receivers. New England and Pittsburgh have had success against the Jets in the past in the underneath zones, but have good receivers that excel in between the hash marks. The Pats got nine receptions from their tight ends, Ed Dickson of Baltimore found success against the Jets, and no one in the short zones could cover Jason Witten of Dallas. David Nelson is a good receiver, but he isn't a durable tight end that can make a living in the middle of the field. There were plenty of situations on Sunday where Fitzpatrick could've used a big, mobile target down the center of the Jets' zones.
Pass Defense. Sanchez looked like the quarterback calling the game on Sunday. Much like Phil Simms used to, Sanchez triggered a simple but effective passing game made more lethal by the Jets' commitment to the run. Sanchez spread the ball around, beating the Bills on crosses and digs. They picked up 14 first downs through the air, as well as pass interference penalties that kept the team moving. Buffalo's determination to limit the Jets' ground game made any concerted effort to get to Sanchez difficult at best. Once again, the team's lack of an edge presence that can get to the quarterback proved an enormous liability.
Run Defense. The Jets ran the ball 35 times if Sanchez's numbers are discounted. They ran for 129 yards. That's a 3.7 yards-per-carry average. That's really good, especially for a Bills defense that's been absolutely ripped apart by Jets runners in the past five games. The longest Jets run was 10 yards. After watching Thomas Jones, LaDainian Tomlinson, and Shonn Greene break long runs at will in past games, containing them in this fashion represents real improvement. Buffalo has gotten a lot tougher in the middle of the defense with Marcell Dareus, Kelvin Sheppard, and Nick Barnett. The Bills may finally have the horsepower to match up with the Jets' power game.
Defense. Buffalo didn't lose this game on defense. Had the offense done anything, the defense was good enough to win with. Despite two Fitzpatrick interceptions late in the first half, they held the Jets to just three points. They forced a punt and a field goal in the first two Jets drives of the second half. The Jets gained just eight yards to set up the Nick Folk field goal. Buffalo had two drives to do anything (the drive starting at their own one-yard line notwithstanding). The Jets' first touchdown drive came after Jackson's fumble. Buffalo's defense held well late into the third quarter, giving the team a chance. While there are no moral victories, Buffalo knows that its defense can play with the Jets.
Pass Protection. Ron may prove me wrong on this, but from a once-through viewing, it seemed that the Jets didn't get their normal pressure on the quarterback. The Jets recorded five quarterback hits in 31 passes, a total that seems low for them. With a guard playing left tackle, the Bills gave Fitzpatrick time. The Jets confused Fitzpatrick, but never hurried him to the point that he couldn't have gotten into a rhythm. Buffalo's line has a lot to work on this week. Getting beat on short-yardage run blocking stands at the top of that list. They should be able to view their protection against the Jets' exotic blitzes as something they did right.
Buffalo is built a lot like the Patriots. They play out of a spread most of the time, and rely on scoring to win games. The Jets are built to counter that type of team. It showed on Sunday. Buffalo does run the ball well, and is starting to gel on defense. I'm of the opinion that Buffalo is one good tight end and a pass rusher away from being able to play with the Jets - and according to my premise at the top, that will also put the Bills in the playoffs as a serious contender.
The AFC East is a three-horse race. Buffalo's got an edge on New England. New England has an edge on the Jets. The Jets have an edge on the Bills. New England and New York get to lay into each other for a second time on Sunday evening. With a win at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday and a Jets loss, Buffalo could be atop the AFC East again. Buffalo will need to live up to their end of the bargain against America's Team Sunday at 1PM.