In a mere 24 hours, the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets will take the field to kick off the 2012 regular season at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. This is a huge division game for two teams with post-season aspirations. Our full Week 1 preview lies after the jump.
The coaches: In a way, these two teams are mirror images of each other. Rex Ryan orchestrates one of the league's most unpredictable and aggressive defenses, while his new offensive coordinator, Tony Sparano, is expected to run an offense that keeps things pretty tight to the vest and features the run. (The exception, of course, would be the implementation of the Wildcat.)
On the flip side, Chan Gailey runs an offense in Buffalo that features more multiple-receiver packages and shotgun formations than any other team in the league. His new defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt, has never been a particularly aggressive play-caller, instead letting his players rely on their natural athleticism running out of a fairly basic 4-3 system.
Both teams will use the Wildcat package - perhaps extensively; time will tell - and both teams annually have strong special teams units.
BUF offense vs. NYJ defense: Gailey and Ryan know each other pretty well, and both teams know how to attack the opponents' weaknesses. Expect each coach to introduce a new wrinkle into his plan to try to throw the other team off, even if just for a while.
Gailey will throw the football a lot; his offense is designed to get the ball to players in space, and it's much easier to do that through the passing game. It is not, however, a lock that he'll try to do so predominantly from shotgun formations with a bunch of receivers; instead, expect the Bills to come out in two-tight end formations frequently, where they'll use Lee Smith as an extra blocker to try to combat Ryan's complex blitz schemes. When the Bills do spread it out, expect it to be from a three-receiver set with a back and a tight end in place to help block, as well.
The Jets, meanwhile, have fairly simple objectives. They must slow down Buffalo's productive running game, which is something they've been effective at in recent seasons. They must also find a way to force Ryan Fitzpatrick into poor decisions, whether that be via the pass rush or by flooding short and intermediate passing lanes and making Fitzpatrick move onto his third and fourth reads. If the Jets can achieve that, Buffalo's offense will become a bit more one-dimensional, and that's when the mistakes start happening.
NYJ offense vs. BUF defense: The Jets have not made a secret of the fact that they're going to be a run-first team that utilizes play-action under Sparano. That's the approach that will give the team the best chance to win with Mark Sanchez at quarterback, and somehow, people have quickly forgotten that that formula got the team to two consecutive AFC Championship games. New York's running back situation is not great - Shonn Greene is merely adequate, and his backups are hit-or-miss - but the team has a pair of speedy outside threats that can hurt defenses deep in Santonio Holmes and rookie Stephen Hill. Dustin Keller plays the role of the all-important safety valve for Sanchez.
Against an offense like this, it is imperative that the Bills take the run away and force the ball into Sanchez's hands much more frequently. That sounds awfully similar to New York's defensive objective, no? The fact of the matter is this: both teams are going to try to make the opposing quarterback beat them tomorrow.
The Wildcat impact: This game has already been dubbed the "Wildcat Bowl" by some, and for good reason: we may never see a single game with as many ties to the offensive package again. The architects of the attack in Miami, Sparano and David Lee, are now coaching in this game (Lee is Buffalo's quarterbacks coach). An argument can be made that Tim Tebow and Brad Smith are the two best operators of the attack in the league today. Both teams are likely to use the look tomorrow afternoon, but you can also bet that the Jets will use it much more frequently than Buffalo.
Why? The answer is simple: Tebow is a much more dynamic passing threat out of the Wildcat than Smith ever will be. (He may be the better runner of the two, as well.) Plus, it's Tebow; the Jets will find ways to use him week in and week out. Buffalo spent time preparing for Tebow's version of the Wildcat this week, and they'll need to be disciplined to defend it, because Tebow can hurt defenses with his legs and with the deep pass.
Key matchup for Buffalo: Stevie Johnson vs. Darrelle Revis. Buffalo's is not an offense where receivers are typically double-teamed, simply because they spread the field so frequently. That will be doubly true against the Jets, who feature the game's best corner in Revis.
Much has been made this week about how Johnson has produced against Revis in ways that many other highly-touted receivers have not. Even still, Johnson has really only ever drawn blood, so to speak, against Revis; that's not a matchup that has ever overwhelmingly favored Buffalo. The Bills have not been very efficient throwing the ball in recent seasons against New York, even with Johnson getting some licks in on Revis. It's not fair to expect Johnson to do more than he has against Revis - particularly as he deals with a groin injury - but he must remain semi-productive in this one-on-one matchup for the rest of Buffalo's passing attack to have a chance.
Key matchup for New York: Nick Mangold vs. Kyle Williams and Marcell Dareus. Within the context of the Jets' offense and this matchup with Buffalo, Mangold and the two guards flanking him, Matt Slauson and Brandon Moore, will have their hands full with the Bills' dynamic defensive tackle duo.
That's especially true when considering Buffalo's revamped pass rush, with Mario Williams serving as that unit's catalyst. With the Jets needing to pay extra attention to Mario's side of the line, the Jets will be counting on their interior trio to handle Kyle and Dareus - and as we saw in the pre-season, that is far easier said than done. On the flip side of this argument, however, the onus will be on Kyle and Dareus to control the point of attack against the run, as the Jets have imposed their will in the running game down in and down out against the Bills in recent seasons.
The Bottom Line: All of the usual factors - field position, the turnover battle, and anything else that's become an NFL game day cliche - will matter in this game. Perhaps the most important factor in determining who will win this game, however, is whether or not the Bills can match the Jets' physicality.
The Jets have won five straight games against the Bills by an average score of 33-14. They have done so by being the more physically dominant football team; it hasn't been close. New York has flat-out steamrolled Buffalo of late, in much the same way New England did (and still can) for a long stretch of seasons. Ryan's team is built around imposing physicality on both sides of the ball. It's tough to finesse a win against a team like the Jets. The Bills can try to do that - or they can man up, handle their business and match the Jets blow-for-blow on offense and defense. Buffalo will have a hard time winning if they let the Jets punch them in the mouth again, but if they can even that particular battle up, this will be a much more competitive game that either team has a shot at winning.