The Buffalo Bills, .500 in the AFC East (1-1), are set to play their third divisional game this season when they take the field in New York against the struggling New York Jets tomorrow afternoon. The game features two teams that are (currently, at least) headed in opposite directions: the Bills have won 2 of their last 3, while the Jets are on a four-game losing streak that started with a loss to the Bills at the end of September.
Despite the recent directions each team has taken, the outlook for this is very similar to the outlook of the first matchup - expect a close one. The Jets are struggling, but they have not lost a game by more than 9 points in their recent losing streak, and they nearly always play well at home. Even though many feel that Buffalo carries the upper hand coming into this contest, the expected outcome (a Bills win) is far from certain. The Bills should win - and they will if they do the following:
Offense: Improve the Red Zone Play-Calling
Easier said than done, right? In his first three starts, Trent Edwards has shown the ability to move the ball down the field - but once the team hits the red zone, they can't put the ball in the paint (5 offensive touchdowns scored this season, 4 by Marshawn Lynch). Offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild's predictability in the red area has been the main culprit - we've seen too many runs, draw plays and one-pass set of downs this season to expect anything else. This team has the players to get the ball in the end zone (well, maybe not a tall receiver, but that's beside the point) - it's on Fairchild to make that happen. Of course, it may not have to happen this week - with Jets LB Jonathan Vilma out for this game, the Bills may just be able to pound the ball into the end zone with Lynch.
Between the 20s, look for the Jets to allow Edwards to operate underneath, with the idea that they will try to get the Bills to third down situations, where they've been awful. Buffalo has converted 50% of its third downs in a game just once this season - the previous meeting against the Jets. The Bills made 19 first downs in that game (15 coming on Edwards throws), but the team converted just 5 of 10 third downs. Expect to see the Jets try to get to third down and then mix up their coverages on Edwards, who exploited a lot of man-to-man coverage en route to 234 yards in the first meeting. The Jets are also expected to blitz far more often in this contest as well, so blitz pickup will be key; the team may also have opportunities to exploit the Jets' rush on screen plays, so keep an eye out for that.
Players to Watch: QB Trent Edwards, RB Marshawn Lynch, TE Robert Royal
Defense: Put it in #10's hands
Thomas Jones was held in check in Buffalo, rushing for just 35 yards on 12 carries as the Jets elected to pass 39 times with Chad Pennington. With Jones out of the picture, Pennington had an effective game, but 2 costly interceptions allowed the Bills to seal the victory. The easiest way to repeat the success of that game is to once again eliminate Jones - but that won't be easy. Expect the Jets to put a much heavier emphasis on running the ball this week; this will let them develop their play-action and keep the Bills' defense off-balance a bit.
DE Chris Kelsay, who is a game-time decision for this contest, was the only Bill to sack Pennington in the first matchup - or to get near Pennington, for that matter. If the Bills want to force Chad into turnovers as they did in Orchard Park, they'll need to find a way to make Pennington rush his throws. The Bills have been blitzing early and often the past two games (Dallas and Baltimore), so it's likely that they will continue that method of pass rush in New York tomorrow.
Players to Watch: DE Anthony Hargrove, DT John McCargo, S George Wilson
Special Teams: Contain Washington
This may be the biggest key to a win for the Bills on Sunday - containing the league's top kick returner, Leon Washington, without the presence of great cover men such as Leon Joe (O), Sam Aiken (D) and Ashton Youboty (D). The pressure will be on guys like Coy Wire, Mario Haggan and Josh Stamer to keep Washington from returning the Jets into contention - and there isn't a scarier returner in the league whose last name isn't Hester.
The Bills also need to make, as usual, a play or two of their own in this department. Whether that be by kick/punt return, turnover or even flipping the field behind P Brian Moorman, the Jets can't be afforded any opportunities for easy points - and these units need to, conversely, create those opportunities for Edwards and the offense. If that happens, it will be very difficult for the Jets to keep up in this one.
Players to Watch: KR Terrence McGee, LB Coy Wire, P Brian Moorman