- James Walker, ESPN Staff Writer
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Behind curtain No. 1 is a veteran team with a lost identity. It used to run the ball well and shut down opponents defensively. Now, doing either is uncertain week to week. The team behind curtain No. 1 has lost its swagger. It is on a two-game losing streak and experiencing infighting, injuries and other distractions.
Behind curtain No. 2 is an upstart team that captured the imagination of the NFL. This group lacks star power. But the players are fun to watch, because they are young and fearless. But they are also immature, which prevented this team from a 4-0 start.
The Jets and Bills both have potentially season-defining games on Sunday. New York (2-2) will look to avoid a three-game losing streak when it travels to play the New England Patriots (3-1). The Bills (3-1) have a chance to bury the "Dream Team" Philadelphia Eagles (1-3) after Buffalo's disappointing loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
By Sunday evening, it will be much easier to separate the pretenders and contenders in the AFC East.
"I think they're both pretenders," Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. said. "The only contender, I think, in that division is New England. In terms of franchises, I think the Bills are going up. The Jets might be slightly going down. I'm not a [quarterback Mark] Sanchez fan. I know he's had success in the playoffs, but I just don't believe in him. The Bills still have work to do."
The Jets have lost their edge. New York was pounded by the Oakland Raiders and Baltimore Ravens in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 68-41. This is the Jets' third consecutive road game. It comes at one of the league's toughest venues: Gillette Stadium.
This buildup is similar to the Jets-Patriots playoff meeting this past January. Everyone is praising New England and bashing the Jets. New York banded together and pulled off the 28-21 upset victory to advance to the AFC Championship Game. Jets head coach Rex Ryan hopes his team responds with the same fight on Sunday.
"I don't think a whole lot of people gave us a chance, but everybody in our locker room thought we had a chance," Ryan recalled this week. "I think everybody wants to forget that we had beaten New England earlier in the year. They just focus on that 45-3 nightmare, but we knew we were a heck of a lot better football team than that."
Add Williamson to the list of people who don't believe the Jets have a chance. New York is more than a touchdown underdog.
"To me, New England is a way better team than they are, so I don't really have expectations that the Jets are going to be able to hang with these guys," Williamson said. "I know the history. I know they beat New England in the playoffs. But if they don't get blown out, I would look at it as 'OK, the Jets are better than I think they are.' I think the Jets are going to get killed."
The Jets want to go back to ground-and-pound football on offense but have shown no evidence that they can still do it. New York is ranked 30th in rushing. The offensive line is horrendous and starting tailback Shonn Greene is averaging just 3.1 yards per carry.
The Jets can't beat the Patriots in a shootout. New York's best chance is to control the clock by running the ball against New England's last-ranked defense. Getting Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold (ankle) back for this game will help. But the Jets remain a long shot to avoid a three-game losing streak.
The Bills are in a different situation but are still seeking contender status. Many thought they had arrived after they upset the Patriots at home in Week 3. But the Bills, who have a lot of young players, didn't handle success well. They suffered a letdown and played their worst game of the season in a 23-20 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Questions are plentiful for both the Bills and Eagles. Many wonder whether Buffalo is good enough to sustain its fast start. Philadelphia already is in a must-win situation and cannot afford to fall to 1-4.
"We're both angry and that's going to make a great game," Bills receiver Steve Johnson said. "We feel like we should've won [last week]. They're supposedly the dream team and feel like they should be undefeated right now so they're pissed off and we're pissed off. It's going to be great for the fans, and it's going to be great for the NFL."
On paper, Philadelphia’s star-studded offense could be a matchup nightmare for the Bills. Buffalo’s defense is ranked No. 27 in the NFL. It gives up a lot of yards and has trouble getting to the quarterback.
"We play sporadically and that's not good for a defense," Bills coach Chan Gailey said. "We'll look really good at times and then we just don't play well at all at times. I think if I had to say one thing, I've seen us do it, so I know we're capable. So if I had to say one thing we’ve got to create more consistency on defense."
New York and Buffalo don't inspire much faith. All eight ESPN experts picked the Patriots to beat the Jets. Seven of eight picked the Eagles to get on track against Buffalo. If the Jets and Bills truly are contenders, this is the weekend to prove their critics wrong.
What will we see behind curtain No. 1 and curtain No. 2 when it's pulled away on Sunday?