The AFC East title is already all but out of reach for Buffalo and the Jets as they convene in north Jersey — those Patriots look pretty good — but thanks to the NFL’s muddled middle of the road, a win by either team Thursday night could have a significant impact on the wild card race. Though neither team can be considered an example of consistency this year, both have shown signs that they could sneak in the playoffs. Winning this one would help a lot toward that goal.
It’s an interesting matchup, since both teams are defense-oriented and have had their occasional struggles on the other side of the ball. Both are coming off victories and the ability to build momentum is important as the season’s second half dawns.
Buffalo at New York
Kickoff: 8:25 p.m. ET (Thursday)
TV: NFL Network
Spread: New York -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. On the Attack
The Bills’ offense had a big day last Sunday in a 33-17 win over Miami, compiling 420 total yards, including 266 on the ground. A lot of it had to do with some improved health, since QB Tyrod Taylor returned after missing time with a sprained knee, and Karlos Williams came back following a three-game break due to a concussion to rush for 110 yards and two scores. LeSean McCoy had 112 yards and a 48-yard TD bolt, while Sammy Watkins had eight catches for 168 yards and a score, despite being hobbled by a sprained ankle. If all four of those weapons are available and reasonably healthy, Buffalo’s attack will be formidable.
2. Banged Up
The Jets couldn’t have picked a worse time to have a short week. QB Ryan Fitzpatrick continues to struggle with torn ligaments in his left (non-throwing) thumb, and he has said he needs surgery, something he’ll probably undergo Friday. Kicker Nick Folk is done for the season with a quadriceps injury, which he sustained before the win over Jacksonville last Sunday. He has been replaced by the erratic Randy Bullock, who missed two PATs in the Texans’ first three games. The Jets are hoping center Nick Mangold (neck) can return after leaving last week’s game early, and also need cornerback Antonio Cromartie (thigh) and Dion Bailey (ankle) to get healthy.
3. Defensive Posture
The Jets were quite fortunate to earn a victory last week over the Jaguars, and it’s unlikely they could have struggled the way they did and beaten any other team. New York rushed for 29 total yards — although it did get two TDs on the ground from Chris Ivory — had some questionable clock management and managed a total of 290 total yards. But New York wasn’t expected to overwhelm anyone on offense this season, so it’s a good thing the Jets forced four turnovers and sacked Jags’ QB Blake Bortles six times. Head coach Todd Bowles may not have received the same acclaim when he arrived as did Buffalo’s Rex Ryan, but he is known as one of the league’s best defensive minds, and though Bortles threw for 381 yards, the Jets were able to stifle Jacksonville when they needed to. They will need a more consistent effort to defuse the Bills’ attack, which was quite potent last week.
In an AFC that features three standout teams and a collection of shaky outfits, Buffalo and New York remain legitimate wild card possibilities, especially as Pittsburgh and Indianapolis face stretches without their starting quarterbacks. That makes Thursday night’s game extremely important.
Buffalo got a boost from its healthy offense last week and will test a Jets D that isn’t at full strength and which needed some gifts from Jacksonville last week to prevail. The Jets, meanwhile, have to find a way to get their running game going, or Rex Ryan will turn his defense loose against the banged-up Ryan Fitzpatrick. Don’t expect either team to explode for a lot of points and yards, and look for turnovers and special teams to play big roles.
Prediction: Bills 20, Jets 17
— Written by Michael Bradley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Bradley is a writer and broadcaster based in suburban Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @DailyHombre.