8:25 PM EST, NFL Network – Line: Bills -3.5, Over/Under: 43
Two of the more surprising teams in the NFL meet tonight in the Meadowlands, as the New York Jets host the Buffalo Bills in a primetime AFC East battle that will likely have a bearing on the Postseason down the road. Coming into the 2017 campaign, very few people (and even fewer folks outside of Western New York) pegged the Bills (5-2, 2nd in AFC East) to advance to the Playoffs, which with nearly half of the season in the books, is where this long-starved franchise finds themselves on track to be. That’s right, folks, for if Sean McDermott’s charges can maintain their current trajectory, they will break the longest running Playoff Drought in the league, dating all the way back to 1999. In regards to McDermott, the first-time Head Coach has done a remarkable job of changing the culture for a franchise that in recent years has been anything but a modicum of consistency. Major Front Office upheaval marred the Offseason, followed by a slew of Trades and Releases of rather significant players, leaving a lot of people around the league with the sense that this would be a Zero Year for Buffalo, as they looked to once again clean house and rebuild. However, at this point it’s become clear that they’re rather far ahead of the curve, with efficiency being the key to their success; thus far, the Bills have enjoyed the largest Turnover Differential in the league (Plus-14), with an Offense that has committed just three Turnovers in seven Games, and a Defense that has collected an NFL-Best seventeen Takeaways, forcing at least three in each of their last four outings. In last weekend’s 34-14 drubbing of the Oakland Raiders, the hosts welcomed their opponent to Orchard Park by forcing four Turnovers, with a pair of Interceptions and Fumbles apiece, while trampling them on the ground with 166 Rushing Yards and two Touchdowns on thirty-seven Carries. After a number of subpar performances, LeSean McCoy (137 CAR, 521 YDS, 3 TD) turned in by far and away his finest outing of the campaign, shredding Oakland’s beleaguered Defensive Front for 151 Yards and a score on twenty-seven Attempts, while Tyrod Taylor (63.8%, 191.9 Y/G, 5.82 NY/A, 8 TD, 2 INT, 44 CAR, 175 YDS, 1 TD) deftly completed all but seven of his twenty-seven Passes for 165 Yards and a Touchdown. Taylor looks revitalized after an Offseason in which the previous Regime made it public that they were indeed trying to do everything within their power to get the veteran Quarterback off their books and out of town, despite being largely the most consistent Signal-Caller they’ve had over the previous decade. Again, it’s amazing what some guys can do when their bosses express some confidence in them. And that sentiment can be applied to the entire Defense, which has been quietly one of the best units in the league. This particular side of the ball has seen the most turnover this season, with McDermott cutting bait with as many as five starters, including Cornerbacks Stephon Gilmore (Free Agency) and Ronald Darby (Trade), and just last week former Pro Bowl Defensive Tackle Marcell Dareus, whom they sent packing to Jacksonville for a late Draft Pick. As a result, this side has featured as many as eight new starters, headlined by former Packers’ Safety Micah Hyde, who has snared a league-high five Interceptions. It’s a testament to McDermott and his Staff that they’ve been able to get so many new faces on the same page in such a short period of time, while managing to impart to them an accountability that quite frankly wasn’t there under the previous Regime. Oh, and with the NFL Trade Deadline having passed the other day, Buffalo continued to make moves in the form of acquiring Kelvin Benjamin from the Carolina Panthers for Third and Seventh Round Picks in the 2018 Draft. The former First Round Pick struggled to make an impact in his three and a half years in Carolina, plagued by injuries and inconsistent play, but will be given an opportunity to correct his course of development from McDermott, who served with the Panthers as their Defensive Coordinator since 2011, and was part of their brain trust when the massive 6-5, 240 lb. Receiver was selected in 2014. It’s a good thing that they were able to broker such a deal, for the Receiving Corps is certainly a place where this team can improve upon, with Wideouts accounting for just 594 Receiving Yards, or in other words 47.5% of the Bills’ 191.9 Yards through the air (29th Overall), making for one of the least productive position groups in the league at this point.
Meanwhile, if the prognosticators weren’t high on the Bills heading into the 2017 campaign, then they were even lower on the Jets (3-5, 4th in AFC East), who for all intents and purposes, were being proclaimed as the worst team in the league. While they are indeed in Last Place in the suddenly competitive AFC East, this team has proven themselves to be head and shoulders above some of the truly floundering teams in the NFL such as the winless Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers. Coming into the season, Quarterback was the main sticking point for an Offense that featured a significant lack of playmakers, and ultimately passed on drafting a potential Franchise Player at the game’s most important position. While it’s certainly debatable as to what Deshaun Watson would be doing with Gang Green, the reality is that New York settled upon Josh McCown (70.5%, 230.0 Y/G, 5.97 NY/A, 12 TD, 7 INT), the veteran journeyman who in his fifteenth season has helped stabilize yet another Offense that was mired in chaos before his arrival. Now with his eighth Franchise (and his fourth in the last five years), the 38-Year Old passed on retirement to continue his NFL Career, which isn’t such a bad deal for a team that is very much in the process of rebuilding. Say what you will about that, but what can’t be denied is that Todd Bowles’ charges are playing beyond expectations and are quite frankly better than their record would suggest; a controversial dropped-ball replay overturned what would have been a potential game-tying Touchdown in the latter stages of a 24-17 loss to the New England Patriots, while a miraculous turn of event in the waning moments of the following week’s clash with the Dolphins allowed Miami to escape with a victory. Factor in last weekend’s narrow 25-20 loss at home to the struggling Falcons, and you have a team that could easily be 4-4 or even 5-3 as we near the midpoint of the term. With that said, in the immortal words of former Jets’ skipper Bill Parcells, “You are what you’re record say you are.”, and there are very clear reasons as to why these guys are looking up at the rest of the division once again. Despite forcing the ninth-most Turnovers in the league (Thirteen), they’ve been rather careless with the ball themselves, committing fourteen (26th Overall), with half of that figure being Lost Fumbles (27th Overall). Against Miami two weeks ago, with the hosts tying the score at twenty-eight Points apiece, McCown was Intercepted on his first play from his own 15-Yard Line, setting up the go-ahead Field Goal for the Dolphins, only to see their final attempt at a rally fumbled away with eight seconds remaining. It was much of the same when these teams met each other in the Season Opener, with Interceptions on two of their final three Drives killing an chance that the visiting Jets had of stealing a key division victory. In the fourth Quarter of what would be a tightly-contested 21-12 Bills’ win, the veteran Quarterback again managed to drive his side deep into Buffalo’s end of the field throwing an Interception from the 37-Yard Line with 5:53 left to play, and was picked off yet again, this time from midfield, with fifty-five seconds remaining, effectively ending the affair. Injuries have also begun to leave a mark in New York, with Bowles struggling to plug holes on both sides of the ball. The biggest problem that most rebuilding teams face in injuries for the simple fact that depth is such a precious commodity for them, and when they inevitably lose a number of players, they simply don’t have the quality backups to supplement them with. So let’s take a moment to run down the Injury Report for Gang Green, shall we? Veteran Tailback Matt Forte (43 CAR, 164 YDS, 25 REC, 203 YDS) has been confined to a limited role in Practice over the past few weeks with an ailing knee, while Starting Cornerbacks Buster Skrine (Concussion) and Morris Claiborne (Foot) are both listed as Questionable, with former Pro Bowl Defensive Lineman Muhammad Wilkerson (26 TKL, 1.0 SK, 1 INT, 3 PD) also listed as Questionable with various injuries to his shoulder and foot.