Happy New Year to everyone out there. As we start 2016, all the best wishes from me and my family to you and yours for a safe, healthy, more peaceful, and successful year ahead. Hope everyone has enjoyed the football during the holiday season – there has been plenty of it.
As we wrap up this holiday season, the NFL also reaches the final week of the 2015 regular season. The New York Jets (10-5) will travel to Buffalo to take on former Head Coach Rex Ryan and his Bills (7-8) on Sunday at 1pm at Ralph Wilson Stadium.
Where to watch: this game will be broadcast regionally on CBS, across both the New York metropolitan and Buffalo markets and on DirecTV CH 711. Veteran NBA and NFL play-by-play man Ian Eagle will have the call with his analyst partner, former Charger and Hall of Fame QB Dan Fouts. Evan Washburn will support the broadcast team from the sidelines.
The playoff scenario: The Jets, winners of five in a row, hold their playoff destiny in their hands as they take on their longtime division rivals from western New York.
- If the Jets win or tie, they secure the AFC’s lone remaining Wild Card berth
- If the Jets do not win, they will be relying on help from the Cleveland Browns (3-12) to defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers (9-6). Should Pittsburgh defeat Cleveland and the Jets lose to the Bills, both the Jets and Steelers will finish with identical 10-6 records; Pittsburgh will then hold the tie breaker the Jets due to a better record against common opponents
Jet update (10-5, 2nd AFC East, #6 in AFC playoff race). The Jets won their fifth game in a row last Sunday, defeating the New England Patriots 26-20 in OT at MetLife Stadium. The Jets controlled play throughout the majority of the game, pressuring and harassing New England QB Tom Brady from the opening drive. On the day, the Jets intercepted Brady once (Darrelle Revis, his 5th) sacked Brady twice (Sheldon Richardson, his 5th, and Lorenzo Mauldin, his 4th), and between sacks, pressures, and hurries, the Jet defense hit Brady a total of 17 times.
QB Ryan Fitzpatrick continued his career season, going 26-for-41 for 296 yards, and 3 TDs. Fitzpatrick threw a short 2-yard TD to WR Brandon Marshall with 1:57 remaining in the first half, propelling the Jets to a 10-3 halftime lead. At the outset of the 3rd quarter, Fitzpatrick found #15 again, from 33 yards out, extending the Jet lead to 17-3. For Marshall, it was his 13th TD reception on the season, establishing a new single-season career high. Marshall had 8 catches for 115 yards and 2 TDs with another phenomenally productive day.
Later in the 3rd quarter, Patriot DT Jabaal Sheard sacked Fitzpatrick, who fumbled. Patriot LB Jamie Collins returned the fumble 14 yards for a Patriot TD, shrinking the Jet lead to 17-13 and creating uneasiness throughout MetLife and the Jet fan base. The Jet faithful became even more uncomfortable on this balmy late December day (game time temperature: a spectacular 57 degrees!) when Tom Brady rallied the Patriots late in the 4th quarter. Brady finally hooked up with TE Rob Gronkowski – who the Jets kept under wraps with only 4 catches, 86 yards, 0 TDs on the day – with an 8-yard pass play to convert a critical 4th-and-1 situation. Later, Brady found Gronkowski for another 26 yards, setting up a game-tying 9-yard TD pass to RB James White with 1:55 left.
At the start of the Overtime period, New England Special Teams Captain Matthew Slater won the coin toss and, under direction from Head Coach Bill Belichick, elected to kick off. With the Jet defense pressuring Brady and dictating tempo throughout the game, Belichick felt that the Patriots had a better chance of stopping the Jets on defense and winning the game with a short drive, potentially setting up a game winning FG, by his Pro Bowl kicker, Stephen Gostkowski. That strategy did not prove effective in this game, as Fitzpatrick first linked up with WR Quincy Enunwa on a 48-yard pass play, and then with Marshall on a 20-yard pitch and catch to move the Jets into scoring position. The Jets won the game on a “walk-off” 6-yard TD pass from Fitzpatrick to WR Eric Decker…a fade in the corner of the end zone, behind Super Bowl XLIX hero, CB Malcolm Butler.
Jet injury front: This late in the season, the Jets remain remarkably intact and relatively healthy as compared with other teams throughout the league. Both RB Chris Ivory (knee) and RB Bilal Powell (ankle) are dealing with nagging, season-long injuries that kept them either out of, or limited, in practice most of the week. However, both are Probable against Buffalo. S Dion Bailey (ankle), WR Kenbrell Thompkins (leg), and CB Dee Milliner (hamstring) are all Questionable.
- More TD passes than Joe Namath, and as many as Vinny Testaverde. With his 3 TDs against New England, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick tied the Jets’ single season mark for TD passes – 29. Vinny Testaverde connected on 29 TDs for the 1998 Jets, who won the AFC East with a 12-4 record, and ultimately lost to eventual Super Bowl-champion Denver in the AFC Championship Game
- Brandon Marshall’s huge season continues. With his 8 receptions on the day, WR Brandon Marshall raised his season total to 101. He set a new NFL record by eclipsing the 100 reception mark for the 6th In the process, he also set the Jets’ new single season mark, surpassing Al Toon’s 93 in 1988
- RB Bilal Powell continues to emerge. Powell had 90 total yards against the Patriots (56 rushing, 34 receiving) and continues to provide Ryan Fitzpatrick with an important 3rd option in addition to the Marshall-Decker wide receiver duo. During the five-game winning streak, Powell has averaged 7.2 yards per touch (rush/pass) with 3 total TDs. He has totaled 394 yards on 55 touches during the streak, and, since Week 11 Powell has led all NFL backs with 299 receiving yards
- The Jets finished 2015 with a 6-2 home mark at MetLife Stadium
Bills update (7-8, 3rd AFC East). Last Sunday, the disappointing Bills defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-6 in a game that certainly did not conjure up any memories of the two Super Bowls these teams played in the 1990s – Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII. Already eliminated from playoff contention, the Bills halted their losing streak at two, and won for just the second time in six games.
Against the depleted Cowboys (4-11), and without several of their own regulars – to include starting RB LeSean McCoy (knee) — the Bills rushed for 236 yards, fueled by rookie RBs Mike Gillislee (9 rushes, 93 yards, 1 TD) and Karlos Williams (17 rushes, 76 yards, 1 TD). Williams rushed for a 1-yard TD in the 1st quarter to put the Bills ahead 6-3. The Buffalo defense surrendered only two FGs to an impotent Cowboy attack led by QB Kellen Moore and RB Darren McFadden; of note, McFadden did rush 19 times for 99 yards.
Up 9-6 in the 4th quarter, Buffalo imposed their will on the ground to execute a decisive, 4-minute drive. With 2:25 remaining in the game, Gillislee took a hand-off on a 2nd-and-5 play, received key blocks from LG Richie Incognito and WR Chris Hogan, and scored on a 50-yard TD run to put the game out of reach.
For the Bills, QB Tyrod Taylor was 13-of-18 for 179 yards and 1 INT; Taylor contributed to the Bills ground attack with 67 yards rushing. In a year where the franchise did not meet its own expectations, nor that of the fan base, Taylor has been a bright spot in his first year as a starter. On the year, Taylor is 224-of-352 for 2,853 yards through the air; in 13 starts, he has completed 63.6% of his passes with 20 TDs and only 6 INTs, for a passer rating of 100.7. Taylor has added 3 rushing TDs and now has 517 yards rushing in ‘15, a new franchise mark for a QB; Doug Flutie previously held the mark with 476 yards in 1999.
Buffalo injury front: RB LeSean McCoy has a torn MCL and is out against the Jets; McCoy ends his first season in Buffalo with 895 yards rushing and 5 total TDs (3 rush / 2 receiving). DT Marcell Dareus left last Sunday’s game vs. Dallas with a shoulder injury and is Questionable vs. the Jets. WR Marcus Easley (knee), G John Miller (ankle), LB Nigel Bradham (ankle), and CB Ronald Darby (groin) are also Questionable for the season finale. QB Tyrod Taylor (right shoulder) is probable; Taylor sustained an injury to his throwing should in a Week 11 Monday Night loss to New England, and has been hampered since.
- The Bills have won the last 4 matchups against the Jets; Buffalo swept the season series in 2014. The Jets last defeated the Bills in Week 3 of the 2013 season, a 27-20 win at MetLife Stadium
- The Bills lead the all-time series against the Jets, 59-51
- WR Sammy Watkins, hampered by a hamstring injury early in the season is coming on –Watkins now has 49 catches for 911 yards, 18.6 yds/catch and 9 TDs. He has surpassed the 100-yard mark four times this season: WK 9 vs. Miami, WK 12 at Kansas City, WK 13 vs. Houston, and WK 15 at Washington
- The Bills last made the playoffs in 1999; this will be their 16th consecutive season out of the NFL playoffs
When we last met: In Week 10, Buffalo defeated the Jets 22-17 on Thursday Night Football at MetLife Stadium. In a game marked by Buffalo HC Rex Ryan’s first game against Jets since being fired following the 2014 season and a horrible clash of “color rush” uniforms, the Bills capitalized on three New York turnovers and moved their record to 5-4. RB LeSean McCoy ran 19 times for 112 yards, and QB Tyrod Taylor threw for 158 yards and a 26-yard TD pass to RB Karlos Williams. The Bills led 22-3 in the 3rd quarter, and held off a Jet rally in the 4th.
After a bad snap prevented Buffalo P Colten Schmidt from getting off a punt inside his own 20-yard line with only 5:17 remaining, the Jets took over at the Bills’ 13-yard line. However, New York stalled deep in Buffalo territory due to a combination of poor execution, unimaginative play calling, and sound Buffalo defense. Jet HC Todd Bowles elected not to kick a FG on 4th down at the Buffalo 7-yard line with 3:02 remaining – while still possessing all three of his timeouts. On the ensuing 4th down, QB Ryan Fitzpatrick’s intended pass to TE Kellen Davis fell incomplete. Buffalo ran the clock down, and on the penultimate play of the game Bills’ DB Baccari Rambo picked off a desperation throw by Fitzpatrick with :24 remaining, and Rex Ryan’s celebration was on.
On that Thursday night in November, the Bills and Jets appeared headed in opposite directions. Both were 5-4, but it felt like the Bills were ready to make a playoff push, while the Jets had peaked. But, Buffalo lost to New England on Monday Night Football a week later, and has only won twice since — vs. Houston in Week 13 (30-21), and last week vs. Dallas (16-6). The Jets’ skid continued in Houston in Week 11, as they lost to the Texans 24-17 and fell to 5-5. As we now know, the Jets have not lost since.
What to expect…and a prediction: This game matches up the #1 rushing attack in the NFL, Buffalo at 154.6 yds/game vs. the #1 defense against the run in the NFL, the Jets who only allow 81.5 yds/game. Snow fell during the week in Buffalo, and game time temperatures are expected to be at the freezing mark, 32 degrees, with a chance of snow showers.
The Jets have not played in cold weather this year, and it will be interesting to watch how that either affects – or has no bearing on — the Jets’ aerial attack. The Jets have not run the ball well in the 2nd half of the season, and have become much more reliant on the passing of QB Ryan Fitzpatrick to the triumvirate of WR Brandon Marshall – WR Eric Decker – RB Bilal Powell.
The Bills have had a truly disappointing season, and predictably, HC Rex Ryan has become a lightning rod for criticism in his locker room, with the media, and the Bills’ loyal fan base. Similar to his approach with New York, Ryan has brought both entertainment and dysfunction to Buffalo. Early in 2015, Ryan predicted a playoff appearance for Buffalo, and both he and the team failed to achieve their publicly stated goals. The dissension in Buffalo only grew as the season wore on, primarily centering on the struggles of the Bills’ defense. In 2014, under former Head Coach Doug Marrone and former Defensive Coordinator Jim Schwartz, the Buffalo defense was ranked 4th in the NFL, noted for its strong defensive line and pass rush – the ’14 Bills sacked opposing QBs 54 times. In 2015, under Ryan and new Defensive Coordinator Dennis Thurman, the unit has declined to 16th in the NFL, with only 20 sacks through Week 16.
This week was another media-filled week in Buffalo highlighted by: more reports of DE Mario Williams’ unhappiness with Ryan and Buffalo’s defensive scheme; Williams is almost certain to be released by Buffalo in the offseason as his sack total has dropped from 14.0 in ’14 to 4.0 in ’15; Owner Terry Pegula issued a vote of confidence for both Ryan and GM Doug Whaley, stating that he looked forward to working with both of them in order to put a winning product on the field for 2016 and beyond; DT Marcell Dareus and LB Jerry Hughes missed the start of practice on Friday, which can most likely attributed to the snow that fell Thursday night into Friday morning; Steeler LB Vince Williams has promised his brother, Bills’ RB Karlos Williams, a ticket to the Super Bowl if the Bills can defeat the Jets on Sunday, potentially opening the door for Pittsburgh to get into the AFC playoffs, if the Steelers can win their own game and defeat the Browns in Cleveland; RB Anthony Dixon called the Sunday matchup against the Jets the Bills’ “Super Bowl”.
The Jets appear focused and ready to handle their business on Sunday. However, the Bills have dominated this matchup the last two years – which is an indirect indictment of Rex Ryan’s coaching from both sides of the rivalry. When motivated, the Bills are physical, aggressive, and more than capable on both lines of scrimmage. They can run the ball, and while I do not expect 154 yards against the Jets on Sunday, Buffalo will run it enough to be effective and sustain drives. The Jets have not excelled on Special Teams throughout the season: P Ryan Quigley has struggled, K Randy Bullock has recently displayed some of the inconsistency that caused him to be released from Houston, and they get very little from both punt/kickoff returns – WR Jeremy Kerley is the primary punt returner.
This is a big spot and opportunity for the Jets, who have more than exceeded expectations in ’15…and I’d be more than excited to see it continue. But this is a division game, and anything is possible in a rivalry matchup. For the reasons above, coupled with some experience and intuition, I think Buffalo comes to play on Sunday, gets to 8-8 and spoils the Jets’ playoff drive….Bills 19-13.
Mike Lalor can be heard talking about New York sports on the Spadora on Sports radio program. His blog can be found at SpadoraonSports.com.