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Thursday, November 3, 2011
Updated: November 4, 9:01 PM ET
Time for Jets to show, not tell, vs. Bills

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- They tell us they won't suffer the usual post-bye hangover, no way, not the way Rex Ryan worked them after their six-day vacation.

They tell us their once-vaunted running game is back to being vaunted.

They tell us their run defense isn't nearly as bad as the numbers, that it's just a matter of cleaning up a couple of technical issues.

They tell us they're ready to take the East.

On Sunday, tell turns to show.

For the first time in what seems like a decade, the New York Jets face the Buffalo Bills in a legitimately big game. They met in 2008 with the same records as now -- 4-3 and 5-2, respectively -- but this just seems bigger, doesn't it?

For the reborn Jets, winners of two straight after a turmoil-laden, three-game losing streak, it's Showdown No. 1, with No. 2 looming in seven days -- a home date against the New England Patriots. By the time they get through with the top two teams in the AFC East, the Jets should know if they're still in contention for the division or relegated to a wild-card chase -- or praying for a miracle.

Time is starting to become an issue. The season will be over faster than a Kardashian-Humphries marriage.

"It's huge," Dustin Keller said of the two-game test. "We basically hold our own fate. We have an opportunity to take first place in the AFC East. As long as we handle business, we can do that. We're more than capable."

What makes this such a fascinating matchup is the recent history between the Jets and Bills. The Jets have won five of the last six meetings, and the only reason it wasn't six for six was because Mark Sanchez threw five interceptions in an overtime loss they should've won by three touchdowns.

None of the holdover players will admit it publicly, but they've always considered the Bills a gimme. As retired Jets tackle Damien Woody said this week, "We felt we could physically impose our will on the Bills -- I mean, physically beat them. That's just a fact, and we backed it up."

The Jets still feel that way, but the Bills aren't pushovers anymore. They're like the school geek that went home for the summer and pumped iron, returning in the fall with biceps.

Unexpectedly, the AFC East has become a three-team race. The Jets can't afford to let another team get between them and the Patriots. They need to send a message to the Bills, giving them the back-to-reality treatment.

But can they?

As much as the Jets have owned the Bills, this is going to be a difficult game because it will highlight two strengths-turned-weaknesses -- running the ball and stopping the run.

In the previous four meetings, the Jets produced area code-type numbers on the ground -- 273, 276, 249 and 318. All told, they outrushed the Bills in those games, 1,116-416, but that was then. The Jets' running attack has slipped, although they're coming off a season-best performance and hope to build on that momentum.

They will hit the Bills with a heavy dose of Shonn Greene, sprinkling in some Joe McKnight as a runner and receiver -- a new wrinkle. Let's face it, the Jets could sign Freeman McNeil out of retirement and still would put up 150 yards against the undersized Bills, ranked 20th in run defense.

If the Jets don't, if they get punched by the punching bag, it's an ominous sign.

The bigger challenge might be on the defensive side, trying to stop Fred Jackson from going Thurman Thomas on them.

Jackson is a do-everything back, with five 100-yard rushing games and a ton of yards after the catch. In fact, his YAC ranks third among all pass catchers in the AFC. Ryan called Jackson the Bills' MVP.

Even though Ryan Fitzpatrick and the spread passing attack grab most of the headlines, the Jets' No. 1 concern is Jackson. Tackling will be critical. Teams coming off a bye tend to get sloppy, and there's no room for sloppiness against Jackson, who gets most of his yardage against five- and six-man boxes.

That's the dilemma when facing the Bills: They spread you out with three, four and sometimes five receivers, in shotgun, and run Jackson against a smaller, pass-oriented defense. That approach caused problems for the Jets against the Patriots.

One difference: The Patriots had Tom Brady, the Bills have Fitzpatrick -- and the Jets are willing to live with the ball in Fitzpatrick's hands. They also figure they'll be able to disrupt the Bills' quick-rhythm passing game by mugging the receivers at the line of scrimmage.

Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine conceded "it's weird to say," but "we're going to dare a spread offense to throw" in certain situations.

"Barry Sanders rushed for over 2,000 yards without a tight end," Pettine said. "There are some people that think a spread offense, they only think passing, and I don't think that could be further from the truth."

The Jets may have to over-compensate because they know they're not as stout as in the past, especially on outside runs to the right side of the defense. The Jets have allowed an average of 127 rushing yards per game, 25th in the league.

This is a scary matchup for the Jets because the Bills have the ability to turn it into a basketball game; the Jets prefer a boxing match on both sides of the ball.

These aren't the old Bills. Are these the Same Old Jets? In this case, that wouldn't be a bad thing, because the Same Old Jets would crush the Bills, flex their muscles and love talking about it.