The Buffalo Bills are off to the Meadowlands on Thursday to face the 3-5 New York Jets for the second time this year. Buffalo already came away with a 21-12 win in Orchard Park to open the season, and will head into this one hoping to even out their road win-loss record at 2-2.
This is the third straight season that the Bills and Jets will be playing on a Thursday. The road team won each of the previous two matchups, with the Bills winning Rex Ryan’s return to the Meadowlands in 2015 and the Jets countering with the Ryan Fitzpatrick Passing Clinic (TM) in Buffalo last year.
I spoke again with Mikey Nania of Gang Green Nation, with whom I traded questions earlier in the year, to catch up on where the Jets stand through the first half of 2017.
The last time we talked, I asked what the odds were that the Jets would go winless in 2017. Two months later, they're not quite competing for a playoff spot but they're certainly three wins better than many people thought they'd be. What's happened over the last eight weeks that has kept the Jets not only competitive, but actually winning a few games?
The Jets have gotten a lot more than expected out of two groups in particular: their top two draft picks and their scrapheap pickups. For the rookie safeties, Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye, there were obviously high long-term expectations as there are with any high draft picks, but these two have stepped right in and looked like quality starters from day one. Both have struggled a bit recently, but they still possess strong bodies of work over the course of the year. Adams has showcased unique versatility for a young rookie, playing all over the field. Maye has been a reliable last line of defense in center field, both against the run and pass. Then again, while all of that is true for the most part, they've been exposed more over this recent losing streak.
As for the scrapheap pickups, the Jets have gotten adequate production out of players that were cast aside by other teams. Wide receiver Jermaine Kearse, a throw-in to the Sheldon Richardson deal, has had a solid bounce-back year after struggling in Seattle last season. Tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was quiet in his short stint with the team last year after being cut by Tampa Bay, but he has been the best tight end this team has had in a long time. He rarely goes down the field, something the offense should dial up more often, but in the short passing game he has been a huge factor. Edge defender Kony Ealy, cut by the Patriots, has been a pass-batting machine and the team's most consistent pass rusher. It's overachieving players like these that made the Jets somewhat relevant, at least more so than we thought. Two of the three I just mentioned (Kearse and Ealy) weren't even on the preseason roster.
Let's take that to the next degree: If the Jets can win three games, what's stopped them from winning a few more?
Disappearance in the second half, particularly the fourth quarter. The Jets got off to a 14-0 start against New England before getting outscored 24-3 the rest of the way, save for a ridiculous touchdown reversal. Then, they lead 28-14 in the fourth quarter against Miami before the secondary (particularly slot corner Buster Skrine) choked the lead away quickly. After the offense had posted -10 yards on its first three fourth quarter drives, Josh McCown threw the game away with an insanely awful interception. Against Atlanta, the Jets held a 17-16 lead at the start of the fourth quarter, and everyone contributed to the blown lead. There was a missed field goal to start the quarter, followed by a poor defensive drive in which Atlanta took the lead on a touchdown. Then, Jeremy Kerley muffed a punt to tack on to Atlanta's lead and take more time off the clock. The Jets still had two chances to get back into the game, but put out two ugly, unproductive drives. This has been a problem all season, but the Jets are finally paying for it against good teams in games they have been competitive. Every phase has contributed to the problem, so coaching deserves a good portion of the blame.
The Bills won the Week 1 matchup between these teams on the strength of a ball-control offense that ran efficiently while accumulating more yards through the air than they usually do (Tyrod Taylor threw for 224 yards, his second-highest total this season). What can the Jets do to counter that on Thursday?
The Jets have done a better job against the run since the early portion of the season, including in Buffalo. Since Week 3, they rank 13th in fewest yards per carry allowed and have only given up one touchdown on the ground. The inside linebackers, Darron Lee and Demario Davis, have improved their run defense tremendously, and that has been the biggest factor in the improvement in that area. Muhammad Wilkerson has also returned to his previous monster form over the past two weeks. The main weakness on this defense in recent weeks has been the secondary past Morris Claiborne, who has played very well. Beyond him, the Jets are extremely thin and vulnerable at cornerback, but like you mentioned, the Bills are a run-first team that doesn't feature its wide receivers much. If the Bills have a similar plan in mind this week as they did back in September, I do think the Jets are much better prepared for it now than they were then.
Editor’s note: Both Wilkerson (shoulder/foot) and Claiborne (foot) are questionable for the game.
The Jets' D seems to be doing alright at forcing takeaways, but the Bills are in another world in that department right now. Can Josh McCown and company protect the ball against a team that's forced 13 turnovers in their last four games?
The Jets offense against this playmaking Bills defense is a worrying matchup. As mentioned before, the Jets are competing, but just not coming out on top since they continuously fall short when it matters most. They don't have the playmaking on either side to mount comebacks and are too susceptible to mistakes that allow other teams to turn things around in an instant. The Jets have opened up the offense more after a really conservative start to the year, but they might need to go back to that this week and rely on the defense to win the game.
Before Week 1, you projected the Jets would win "3 or 4 games," and you said you'd be "shocked if they won more than 6." How do you feel about that now, and do you think they can use home-field advantage to make it to four wins on Thursday?
Well, I'm glad to be wrong, as it seems they'll certainly beat my initial projection. However, I don't think it's a guarantee they'll beat 6 just yet. Their upcoming slate is extremely difficult, as after hosting a good team in the Bills, they still play Carolina, Kansas City, at Denver, at New Orleans, and at New England. Josh McCown already went over his head by winning more games this year than he had the past three years, so it's tough to rely on him. Eventually, it's likely Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg will get in there, and neither has proven themselves capable of winning in the NFL. Still, the Jets have a better team than we thought, and with a young roster, lots of upcoming cap space, and a few extra draft picks through trades, there is reason to believe they're trending the right way.
As for Thursday, it's hard to not pick the Bills. The Jets were able to beat the Jaguars and Browns when they were fortunate enough to take on quarterbacks more mistake-prone in key situations than theirs. The Jets have proven they can go toe-to-toe with just about anyone, but teams who win in the red zone and win the turnover battle will beat them every time. The Bills do both. I think it will be close, but Buffalo will come out on top.