No game played in Week 3 is a must-win for any pro football team, but the Buffalo Bills and the New York Jets may as well consider it that way when the teams face off tomorrow afternoon at MetLife Stadium. Both clubs enter the contest with a division loss in hand - to the New England Patriots, no less - and avoiding an 0-2 start may be imperative if either franchise harbors serious playoff aspirations.
Since the NFL re-aligned its divisions to four teams apiece in 2002, 132 teams have made the playoffs. 107 of those - 81.1 percent - made the post-season with four or more wins in division contests. The loser of this week's Bills/Jets game will fall to 0-2 in the AFC East; unless either ran the table against the Miami Dolphins and the two division rivals to which they had already lost, their playoff chances would diminish significantly.
Of the 25 teams that made the playoffs with a .500 or worse record in the division in the past 11 years, just six (4.5 percent) finished with a losing record; all were 2-4. One such team made the playoffs every season between 2006 and 2011: Dallas, Jacksonville, Philadelphia, the Jets, Kansas City and Cincinnati, respectively. In a hole at 0-2 and facing a difficult division slate for the rest of the season, the loser of this game may be reduced to hoping for this kind of post-season entrance with a loss - and those odds are incredibly slim.
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Mirror image teams, polar opposite franchises
This Bills/Jets matchup offers a curious dichotomy between similar on-field elements and completely different off-field situations. Most of the pre-game focus has centered around the two rookie quarterbacks set to start (EJ Manuel for Buffalo and Geno Smith for New York), and the inaugural defensive chess match about to be played between years-long allies in Rex Ryan and Mike Pettine.
Both teams have already lost to New England by one score, and both have registered a one-point win over a NFC South also-ran - victories secured in the final seconds on their home turf, and even on drives aided by a key penalty. Add in the rookie quarterbacks and the fact that each team is running the same exotic, attack-first defense, and it's tough to ignore just how similar the start to the 2013 season has been for the Bills and Jets.
That said, there's no question that from a broader perspective, these franchises are perceived to be heading in opposite directions. Manuel is a week removed from engineering a game-winning two-minute drive in his second pro start, while Smith has struggled mightily with turnovers and sacks. The Bills have a new GM and a new head coach in place, and the current regime is here for the foreseeable future, while Jets observers are seemingly counting the days until GM John Idzik fires Ryan and begins a re-tooling of the Jets' on-field product.
Those observations don't matter in this contest, though. Or at least, they shouldn't. What does matter is that two clubs very similar in style will be attempting to exploit weaknesses that both share.
Bills offense vs. Jets defense
No matter how skeptical anyone remains about Manuel's long-term prospects as a pro quarterback, no one is arguing that he's had anything other than a surprising, efficient and occasionally thrilling start to his NFL career. Through two games, he's completing 68.2 percent of his passes at 6.8 yards per attempt with three touchdowns, one interception and a quarterback rating of 95.9. In doing so, he's become the first rookie quarterback since 1960 to post a rating of 89 or higher in his first two games.
It's worth pointing out, however, that we haven't yet seen Manuel perform against a defense as aggressive as Ryan's. Manuel has been sacked just once through two games - he lost a fumble on that play, by the way - and while his offensive line deserves some credit there, New England and Carolina did not exactly dial up a ton of blitzes against the rookie. That will change in Week 3, and given Ryan's track record against freshmen signal callers, it's fair to expect a much sloppier performance from the No. 16 overall pick this past April.
That said, the Bills do have one advantage in this matchup that the Jets can only do so much to contain: C.J. Spiller. Coming off a 16-carry, 103-yard performance in last week's win, Spiller will look to continue his strong play agains the Jets from a year ago. In two 2012 performances, Spiller accumulated 325 yards of total offense and two touchdowns - both of which went for longer than 50 yards. Buffalo has a deeper stable of skill talent than they've had in a while, but both teams know that Buffalo's offensive success will be sparked by Spiller's effectiveness.
Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports
Jets offense vs. Bills defense
Smith has had a rough go of it to this point; in two games, he's completing just 53.4 percent of his throws at 6.4 yards per pop with one touchdown, the aforementioned five turnovers (four interceptions and a lost fumble), nine sacks taken and a 55.2 quarterback rating. He has struggled.
That said, he hasn't had an awful lot of help, either. The team's new running back tandem of Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory has managed just 3.1 yards per carry splitting 47 rush attempts. Jets receivers dropped six passes in their Week 2 loss to New England. Smith takes the majority of the negative press, but the Jets' skill players need to be better - starting with the team's running game, which is a young quarterback's best friend. Playing against a Bills run defense that's surrendering 4.3 yards per rush, they should have opportunities to keep the Bills honest as they tee off on Smith.
There's little question that the weakness of Buffalo's defense is its secondary, where top cornerback Stephon Gilmore remains sidelined with a wrist injury and free safety Jairus Byrd is questionable to play with plantar fasciitis in both feet. Justin Rogers, Gilmore's replacement in the starting lineup, is susceptible to giving up the deep ball, as he did to the tune of a 40-yard score against Carolina. There's even upheaval at the nickel spot, where Ron Brooks is recovering from foot surgery. Jeremy Kerley is a name to watch for the Jets; the slot receiver is returning to the lineup and had a monster game against Buffalo last season, with 45 yards and a touchdown (plus a 68-yard punt return for a score) in Week 1.
Buffalo's goals will remain the same as they've been in previous weeks: contain the run, make the opponent one-dimensional, and tee off on the quarterback. The hope this week is that the rookie quarterback will make more mistakes, but they'll need to take care of the basics first.
All-22 film review
- (1 of 2) Scott Chandler holds two linebackers in the short area of the field, and Stevie Johnson has tons of field to work with on his post. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) EJ Manuel's throw is way off target; the pass is yards off the mark to the inside, and a diving Johnson has no chance to make a play. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 2) This time, it's C.J. Spiller holding Panthers defenders underneath, and Chandler breaking free down the field behind the decoy. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) Manuel's throw is egregiously high and behind Chandler, who adjusts his route to try to make a play to no avail. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Johnson finds a hole in the Panthers secondary up the seam, and Manuel delivers a strike for a first down. (NFL Game Rewind)
- T.J. Graham beats Captain Munnerlyn on a vertical route with ease, and safety Charles Godfrey is late getting into the play. Manuel can't get the ball out in front of Graham, who has to hit the brakes just to prevent an interception. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 2) Here, again, we see Bills receivers (Chandler and Spiller) holding Panthers defenders close to the line, with a Bills receiver (Robert Woods) breaking free behind on a post. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) This is another strike from Manuel, who hits Woods in stride and allows his fellow rookie to pick up some extra yardage after the catch. (NFL Game Rewind)
- On the Bills' game-winning drive, a Luke Kuechly pass interference on Johnson (pictured) negates a pick. We'll leave it to you to decide if Johnson could have gotten enough air on a high throw to prevent the pick. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Geno Smith throws a strike up the seam. Stephen Hill caught this pass in stride, then promptly fumbled as he ran after the catch. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 2) Santonio Holmes breaks free on a crossing route for a big gain down the field. See next slide for why this throw was so impressive. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) Smith is able to hit Holmes in stride despite the fact that he can't follow through on his throw - he takes a big hit from Chandler Jones and delivers a strike. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Clyde Gates, filling in for the injured Jeremy Kerley, can't come down with a well-placed deep ball to help out his rookie quarterback. (NFL Game Rewind)
- This time it's Hill that can't make a play on a well-placed deep ball. Note the double-coverage; Smith is very willing to take chances downfield. (NFL Game Rewind)
- This was Smith's best throw against New England - a laser to the right sideline to the toe-tapping Holmes for a completion. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Ryan Spadola, an undrafted rookie out of Lehigh, can't hang on as Smith throws up the seam again. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 2) Alfonzo Dennard takes an inside position on a fly pattern. Smith throws the ball to the outside shoulder, giving Hill the opportunity to adjust and make the catch. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) Hill makes the catch on Smith's adjusted deep throw over the top of Dennard. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Smith threw this ball across his body as he rolled out to the right. It's a touch off target, but it hits Hill in the hands. Hill dropped it. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Here's another example of Smith being willing to put a ball into trouble to let his receiver make a play. Hill didn't catch this, but it wasn't close to being picked. (NFL Game Rewind)
- On his second of three fourth-quarter interceptions, the oft-pressured Smith does not step into a throw and loses velocity up the seam. The throw is off-target, and Dennard steps in front for an easy pick. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 1) Trying to tie the game late, Smith makes a bad read, trying to fit the ball between a corner and a safety up the right sideline instead of targeting the man coverage in the middle of the field. The ball is underthrown, and it's another easy pick. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) Here's that previous throw from the end zone angle. The ball needs to carry further upfield; the receiver can't even hit the brakes fast enough to prevent the interception. (NFL Game Rewind)
We've already covered the different trajectories that Manuel and Smith are on quarterbacking their respective teams as rookies. As throwers of the football, however, they're much closer as prospects: Smith has made some outstanding throws down the field that his receivers haven't been able to make plays on, while forcing too many throws as well; Manuel has thrown some beautiful balls himself, but has also lobbed a few head-scratchers that left a lot of yardage on the field. Flip through the gallery above to see multiple examples of each from both players, and leave your mouse hovered over the photos for explanations.
- (1 of 1) As the Panthers' offensive line blocks to its left, Kiko Alonso follows the lead blocker action of Ben Hartsock (84) to the offense's right (Alonso's left). (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) DeAngelo Williams and Hartsock both stay in pass protection, doubling up Mario Williams - who is playing contain on the play. Alonso, freed up, cuts back to his right, shoots a gap and registers a pressure on Cam Newton. (NFL Game Rewind)
- Da'Norris Searcy keeps Hartsock blocking out on the edge, and Kyle Williams draws a double-team from tackle Byron Bell. Alonso loops around the double to register another pressure, though he doesn't quite get home as Williams gets a piece of him. (NFL Game Rewind)
- This delayed blitz is built off of another double-team: Marcell Dareus eats up the right guard and right tackle, and Alonso sneaks around the edge for a pressure. (NFL Game Rewind)
- This was the least effective delayed blitz of the day: a simple delay straight through the A gap. Newton felt the pressure, but Williams effectively cut Alonso, who didn't make it all the way into the backfield. (NFL Game Rewind)
- As the Panthers move to double Williams again, Alonso loops around a Hartsock block to put a hit on Newton. This led to a short pass completion that resulted in a five-yard loss in the red zone. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (1 of 1) On the final play of the game, with the Panthers setting up a Hail Mary, Alonso isn't even in the box - he's lined up over a receiver in the slot. (NFL Game Rewind)
- (2 of 2) As Newton drops ever further back in the pocket, Alonso gets a running start on left tackle Jordan Gross. He dips his shoulder and bends the edge, sacking Newton for a 16-yard loss to end the game. (NFL Game Rewind)
Delayed blitzing is a hallmark of the defense that you'll see on the field for every snap of this contest. In Buffalo, Pettine likes to send rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso on such pressures, and the second-round pick has proven himself adept at it. Once again, flip through the gallery above for diagrams and descriptions on how the Bills utilized these pressure packages to not only mirror Carolina's dangerous running backs, but also to contain a mobile quarterback in Cam Newton.
Two sleeper Jets
Stephen Hill: For all that's said about the Jets' lack of proven skill talent, Hill is most definitely a name that Bills fans will remember. In his pro debut last season, Hill hauled in five passes for 89 yards with two touchdowns in a 48-28 Jets win. At present, Hill is the Jets' leading receiver through two games, with 125 receiving yards on 10 receptions. He's still a hit-or-miss prospect - he has a few drops and a lost fumble to his name already - but when he hits, the 6'4" speedster can be a nightmare matchup. He'll draw Rogers most of the time on Sunday.
Damon Harrison: Massive defensive linemen Vince Wilfork and Star Lotulelei have given the Bills fits in their first two games. Starting left guard Colin Brown, in particular, has struggled with these assignments, but the interior across the board has had some issues moving larger defensive tackles to consistently open up running lanes. Muhammad Wilkerson gets most of the ink for the Jets on the defensive line, but you'll have a hard time missing nose guard Damon Harrison (6'4", 350) when he's on the field. A designated run-down defender, Harrison is off to a great start this season, registering nine tackles on 60 snaps in the Jets' first two games. He'll be charged with helping the Jets control the point of attack as the Bills try to establish Spiller and Fred Jackson on the ground.
Ed Mulholland-USA TODAY Sports
Two sleeper Bills
Scott Chandler: Virtually omnipresent on the field in the Bills' new offense, Chandler has struggled more than any other Bills player to build chemistry with Manuel. The two have missed a few notable opportunities for big plays in the first two games, and Chandler has looked uncharacteristically shaky catching the football this season. He has just 48 receiving yards this season. Still, as the season progresses, Chandler's level of play should improve - and if he continues to get open the way he has thus far, when things start to click he'll have at least one big day statistically.
Nickell Robey: Drawing the assignment of covering the aforementioned Kerley, the Jets' most reliable receiver, is Robey, an undrafted rookie out of USC that has played more snaps for Buffalo than No. 9 overall pick Dee Milliner has for the Jets this season. Robey is a top-notch athlete that plays much bigger than his size (5'7", 165), but the smooth and well-built Kerley (5'9", 188) might give him more trouble than he's experienced to date. Robey nearly made a great diving interception against Carolina, and there is some playmaking upside with this player; his matchup on Sunday will be one to watch.
The Bills and the Jets share so much in common that it's easy to overlook the obvious: in what shapes up to be a defensive battle with green offenses trying to make enough plays to win, the team that protects the football the best dramatically increases their chances to win. Doing the small things right - avoiding penalties, winning the turnover battle and moving the chains on third down (or preventing the opponent from doing so) - will matter a great deal in this game precisely because it's likely to be low-scoring. Assuming a virtual wash on that front - which we realize is certainly not a safe assumption, but it's certainly achievable - we like the Bills in this one given their more explosive playmaking ability on offense - but really, this might be a 50-50 proposition on Sunday. Bills 17, Jets 13