Buffalo Bills (4-11) at New York Jets (10-5)
Sunday, January 2, 2011, 1:00 PM
New Meadowlands Stadium
With a playoff spot in hand, the Jets close out their regular season Sunday against the lowly Bills, who have actually gone 4-3 after an 0-8 start. With the Jets not at full strength, resting players before the playoffs next week, Buffalo has a chance to finish above .500 in the last half of the season. But quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick's playing status is in doubt, and without him, the Bills don't appear to offer much of a threat. As for the Jets, the only way they can upgrade their playoff seed is by winning and having Pittsburgh lose and Baltimore win. So expect to see a lot of backups in the game, including backup quarterback Mark Brunell, for an extended period of time.
When the Jets have the ball...
Mark Sanchez has bounced back after a pair of bad games with back-to-back strong performances against Pittsburgh and Chicago. In an essentially meaningless game, Rex Ryan still plans to play Sanchez to preserve his hot hand heading into the playoffs. With a young quarterback short on experience, it's only a bad decision if he's either awful or he gets hurt. More repetitions couldn't hurt for him. Buffalo is the 4th ranked pass defense, but that's exaggerated because of how often they're behind. The Bills did intercept Sanchez five times right next door last year, so there is some potential for a bad game.
The Bills have a few solid players on their defense, namely DT Kyle Williams, LB Paul Posluszny, and a solid secondary. Last week, they ran into the Patriots buzzsaw which ate the Bills alive with the short passing game. The Jets have been playing well, but with the Bills trying to redeem themselves after last week's embarrassment, a good showing here would be a good omen for the playoffs.
It's been the run defense which has hurt Buffalo this year. They are dead last as a unit in stopping the run. The Bills haven't allowed many long runs, but they can be gashed for consistent positive yardage, as the Jets did in the first matchup. Both Shonn Greene and LaDainan Tomlinson ran for 100 yards that game. With the running game looking to have a signature moment to show it's productive again, this will be a game the Jets try to regain their swagger running the ball.
As far as subs are concerned, Sanchez probably will not play the whole game. Even if it's close, I expect Ryan to eventually pull him. Also, look for young players like Joe McKnight and Vladimir Ducasse to get extended looks. This is a prime time for the Jets to evaluate some young talent for the future. McKnight will probably be the fourth quarter runningback, seeing if the rookie can do something to give the fans some hope for the future. And, of course, Mark Brunell will play, bringing a short passing game and very little else to the field when he comes into the game.
When the Bills have the ball...
Like the Jets, gameplanning for the Bills depends on who plays quarterback for them, and that will be a gametime decision. Ryan Fitzpatrick has brought respectability back to the Bills in recent weeks, but he was awful last week and didn't practice all week. Former Louisville star and Packer washout Brian Brohm would get the start if Fitzpatrick can't go.
No matter who starts, however, the offense will begin and end with the running game. Fred Jackson is an underrated all-purpose back whom the Bills will feed to try to keep the Jets' offense off the field, especially if Brohm starts. In 3 of their 4 wins, Jackson has rushed over 100 yards. It's also the last chance Buffalo has to show off the 9th overall pick, C.J. Spiller, a highly touted rookie who hasn't made much of an impact this season.
The Jets bring a stout run defense into the game, but they've been humbled in back-to-back weeks by Rashard Mendenhall and Matt Forte. Both ran very well against the Jets defense. Again, the Bills will be a nice tune-up for the playoffs, with a run-first offense led by a two-headed rushing attack, not dissimilar to what they could face in Kansas City in round one of the playoffs. Shutting down Jackson and Spiller would be a very encouraging sign, and it should lead the Jets to victory if they can do that.
The one place on the field the Jets are most likely to rest players is in the secondary. Safeties Jim Leonhard, James Ihedigbo, and Eric Smith will all be out, while cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie will likely play part-time to rest hamstring and groin injuries respectively. The Bills' Steve Johnson has become a major weapon with 1001 yards and 10 touchdowns in his third season. With good size and deceptive speed, he could be a difficult matchup for Drew Coleman, Marquice Cole, or Kyle Wilson, whenever Revis and Cromartie are out of the game.
If Fitzpatrick plays, the Bills have a chance to put up a few points against the Jets' backups through the air. Until last week, the Bills had been relatively solid at keeping their quarterbacks upright. It will be hard for the Jets to manufacture a pass rush. This could be a week to try new things and see if they can get some confidence in getting after the quarterback with the playoffs just a week away. Rex Ryan challenged the defense to get better. This is the final tune-up before the playoffs begin. Expect the defense to come out inspired after last week's debacle, but the lack of personnel could be an issue.
With no word on Fitzpatrick and no clarity on just how much Rex Ryan will play his starters, it's hard to predict this game. It's most likely meaningless for the Jets other than securing an above .500 record at home in their first year at the New Meadowlands Stadium. Both teams were embarrassed last week. I really think the difference in this game could be who starts at quarterback for the Bills. The Jets will run the ball well in this game, but if Fitzpatrick plays, he could move the ball a little through the air against the Jets' younger secondary. Five turnovers last week nonwithstanding, he usually is better at taking care of the ball and making quicker decisions than Brohm, who has not made his mark in the NFL at all. It sounds like Brohm is going to play. In that case, look for the Jets' exotic blitzes to force the inexperienced quarterback into several mistakes and for the Jets running game to overwhelm the Bills in a similar script to the week 4 blowout.
Jets 27, Bills 17 (if Fitzpatrick plays, 27-24 Jets)