It has been two months since the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills last played, a 27-20 Jets win in New Jersey on Sept. 22. Each team was 1-1 and was starting a rookie quarterback. Geno Smith got the better of EJ Manuel, passing for 331 yards and two touchdowns.
But now the Jets sit at 5-4 and are in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Bills are 3-7 and their playoff hopes could essentially be gone with a loss to the Jets. After Sunday, the Bills will play only once more at Ralph Wilson Stadium this season, giving them greater urgency to avoid a four-game losing streak.
ESPN Bills reporter Mike Rodak and ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini discuss the matchup:
Rodak: Rich, the last time the Bills and Jets met, we discussed some of the similarities between these two teams. Each has a rookie quarterback, an offense that can grind out some yards running the football, and essentially the same defensive scheme. What have the Jets done well that has led to their 5-4 record?
Cimini: The Jets are 3-3 since the first meeting, with signature wins over the Patriots and Saints. They've evolved into more of a Rex Ryan-type team, meaning they rely on defense and a ball-control rushing attack. They're not airing it out as much as they did early in the season, and there are a couple of reasons for that: injuries at wide receiver (mainly Santonio Holmes) and turnovers by Geno Smith.
Smith is experiencing a serious case of rookie growing pains -- sounds familar, right? -- and the coaches decided to dial it back a little bit to ease some pressure on him. He has 16 turnovers -- way too many, obviously. Chris Ivory, a non-factor early in the season, has been carrying the running game. Get this: In the win over New Orleans, Smith threw for a total of one yard in the first and fourth quarters. I have a feeling they may open it up a little this week with Holmes finally healthy and Kellen Winslow back from suspension. They also could try to exploit the Bills' man-to-man coverage, as they did in the first meeting, but this isn't the same Buffalo secondary, is it?
Rodak: It certainly isn't the same secondary that was lit up that afternoon at MetLife Stadium. A few weeks after that meeting, the Bills got cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd back from injuries. Byrd was eased back into action and had his first interception of the season last Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Gilmore, on the other hand, is back to a full workload but having some issues. The Bills' first-round pick last season, Gilmore was picked on by the Chiefs two weeks ago and had his worst game yet against the Steelers. Doug Marrone said Gilmore played very well in the preseason and appeared to be on the rise, so it's a disappointment for Buffalo that he isn't playing better right now. He said Sunday that his wrist, which he fractured in the preseason, still isn't right, but his troubles have extended beyond that. He admitted that he was "lulled to sleep" on Jerricho Cotchery's 5-yard touchdown catch Sunday, and as you know, Mike Pettine's defense requires its top cornerback to play better man-to-man coverage than that.
Rich, there's a lot of talk around here about Kiko Alonso, who could be one of the favorites for Defensive Rookie of the Year. His toughest competition, though, might come from Jets defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson. Why is he deserving of that award?
Cimini: I'm not ready to hand the award to Richardson, but he's definitely in the conversation. To me, the most impressive thing about him is that he has been starting from Day 1 and can play multiple spots along the defensive line. That allows him to play every down, which explains his 80 percent play time -- a high total for a rookie defensive lineman.
I criticized the pick (13th overall) because I didn't think Richardson would be able to play in a 3-4 front. As you know from covering Pettine, this defensive system is based on multiple fronts. But Richardson has blended in nicely, and it helps that he's a freakish athlete. For a 295-pound man, he can do some remarkable things. He also has a non-stop motor and makes hustle plays. He has leveled off in recent weeks (he's stuck on 2.5 sacks), but I still think we're looking at a future star.
Speaking of rookies, Mike, what the heck is going on with EJ Manuel? Is it injury rust or are there other things at play?
Rodak: It's more than just rust, Rich. The problems that we saw from Manuel on Sunday in Pittsburgh were there in his first five games, before the knee injury that sidelined him for a month. He appears hesitant to throw downfield, settling for check-down options more than an NFL quarterback should be. And even on some of those shorter throws, his accuracy has been inconsistent. One notable throw against the Steelers, intended for Fred Jackson over the short middle, hit Jackson in the feet.
We're not seeing wild, perilous throws from Manuel or streaks of interceptions and turnovers that will cause coaches to squirm. Manuel has always shown a calm, controlled demeanor on the field. It's just that, sometimes, it's too controlled. He's not trying to do too much. Instead, he's usually trying to do too little, even for a rookie, and that has hurt him.
Rich, are the Jets a serious playoff contender? How do you see them playing down the stretch, and can Geno Smith really take them anywhere in January, if they are still playing?
Cimini: The Jets are a contender, for sure. In the watered-down AFC, why not? They're crazy inconsistent -- they haven't won two in a row -- but that might be good enough to snag the second wild-card spot. I have them finishing 8-8 because, frankly, I think their lack of experience will bite them in the long run. By that, I mean Smith, mostly. He's hard to figure, Mike. There's no question he has the physical tools, but his decision-making is suspect. Quarterbacks coach David Lee said Smith tends to stray from the game plan, especially late in games. He's the opposite of Manuel; Geno tries to do too much.
The Jets are a feel-good story, and I think Rex Ryan is on his way to a contract extension, but there are too many holes to take them seriously in January. I think Sunday's game will be telling. There's every reason to believe they'll beat the Bills, a team they've owned in recent years, but something tells me they'll have one of those "Same Old Jets" days.
What kind of vibe do you get from Marrone? Is he the long-term answer?
Rodak: I still think he is, Rich. Despite their bad loss to the Steelers last weekend, the Bills still appear to be on the upswing. On Wednesday, during a radio interview, CEO Russ Brandon said communication "has never been better" at One Bills Drive, and from an outside perspective, there looks to be good chemistry between Brandon, Marrone, and general maager Doug Whaley.
Ultimately, though, the fate of the head coach is often tied to his quarterback, and Marrone knows Manuel needs to play a lot better. Marrone expressed a high level of confidence in Manuel on Monday, part of an impassioned speech where he told reporters he wasn't asking for patience or time in the rebuilding process. That approach could put some stress on the organization, but I think it's the right message at the right time.