This time last season, the writing was on the wall for Rex Ryan: he wouldn't be returning as the head coach of the New York Jets in 2015. His replacement, former Arizona Cardinals’ defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, had been working his way up the coaching ladder for nearly two decades before signing on to lead the Jets last January.
The move, at least for the Jets, has paid dividends as they face a win-and-in scenario on Sunday. Ryan’s new team and the Jets’ division rival, the Buffalo Bills, have been nothing short of a disappointment in 2015, as his antics seem to have already grown tiresome in Upstate New York.
Before the regular season started, the Jets and Bills seemed to be traveling down different paths, the Bills on the uptick after finishing the 2014 season with a 9-7 mark, while the Jets seemed to be falling apart.
The Bills solidified their already stout defense by extending All-Pro defensive tackle Marcell Dareus’ contract to go along with fellow well-paid D-linemen Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes. The combined $51 million spent on those three players have landed the Bills as one of the more marginal defenses in the league and a sub-.500 record.
The Jets were the league-wide punch line (pun intended) in August when reserve linebacker IK Enemkpali broke starting quarterback Geno Smith’s jaw after sucker punching him in a locker room disagreement. Enemkpali was immediately released by the team, and was promptly signed by the Bills because — well, that’s just Rex. What should have derailed the Jets, the loss of Smith at the hands of a teammate, gave way to the resurgence of Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Harvard educated quarterbacking journeyman.
New York at Buffalo
Kickoff: 1 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Spread: Buffalo +3
Three Things to Watch
1. Speaking of Ryan Fitzpatrick…
This has to be a sweet feeling for the former Bills quarterback — on the verge of a playoff berth against the team that signed him to a six-year, $59 million dollar extension in October 2011 to be their long-term starter, only to be released 17 months later.
Since being cut by Buffalo in March 2013, Fitz bounced around the AFC South, making lackluster stops in Houston and Tennessee, before eventually singing as Geno Smith’s backup this past offseason. Smith’s broken jaw was Fitz’s second, er — fourth chance to be an NFL starter, an opportunity he’s made the most of, needing just one TD to set the Jets’ single-season record.
Fitz has created a fantastic connection with his receivers, highlighted by Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. With running backs Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory banged up, and the Bills' secondary limping around, both Marshall and Decker should expect to carry a heavy load of the Jets’ offense on Sunday afternoon. And if Fitz stays on the roll he's been on over the last five games (13 TDs, 1 INT, 1,525 yards, three game-winning drives) the Jets will have a date for the NFL postseason next week.
2. Tale of Two Defenses
The Jets brass traded one defensive-minded head coach in Ryan for another in Todd Bowles. Under Ryan, the Jets consistently were one of the best defensive teams in the league for the entirety of Ryan’s tenure, and Bowles has picked up right where Ryan left off. The Jets are first in the NFL in stopping the rush (81.5 ypg), third in takeaways (29 TO), sixth in total yards (320.2 ypg), seventh in points (19.5 ppg), all while being the least penalized defensive unit in the league. With Bills’ running back LeSean McCoy listed as questionable, quarterback Tyrod Taylor (also listed as questionable) will be expected to lead the Buffalo offense through the air — which plays right into the Jets’ hands. In the five games that Taylor has thrown 30-plus passes, the Bills are 0-5.
The Bills' defensive unit has been the most disappointing group in the AFC. What should have been one of the best defensive teams in the league, could probably be best described as average. The Bills rank 10th in sacks (40), 14th in takeaways (22 TO), 20th in total yards (360.1 ypg), and 23rd against the pass (252.9 ypg, 28 TDs). With a battered secondary missing cornerback Stephon Gilmore and possibly Ronald Darby, the Buffalo front seven is tasked with stopping Ryan Fitzpatrick and the impressive Jets’ passing attack on their own.
3. Playing For Something
When the Bills defeated the Jets 22-17 on "Thursday Night Football" back in Week 10, Buffalo was still in the thick of the playoff hunt and on the upswing. Since then, the Bills have dropped four of their last six games, falling out of playoff contention and pointing fingers, often at Ryan, along the way down. Sunday’s game in Buffalo will be the last for the Bills in ’15. What was promised by Ryan to be a playoff season in Orchard Park has turned into an underwhelming finish that can’t even be rescued by beating Ryan’s former team and division rival on Sunday afternoon.
After the Bills loss in Week 10, the Jets fell again the next week to the Texans, dropping their record to 5-5. The Jets haven’t lost since. Winners of five in a row, the Jets are the hottest team in the AFC with their sights set on a wild card berth. A win on Sunday against Buffalo puts the Jets in the dance, while a loss forces Gang Green into Cleveland Brown fandom against the Steelers. The way this team has rallied around one another over the course of the last six weeks has been something to behold, and not something to bet against.
While the Rex Ryan/Ryan Fitzpatrick revenge game subplot and playoff implications are obvious and sure to be over-discussed, the possibility that Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory could be missing from the New York backfield as well as LeSean McCoy for Buffalo, makes this game seem even more intriguing from an X’s and O’s standpoint. But the way the Jets’ passing game has been putting up points and the stalwart defense has been clicking makes it hard to pick against Todd Bowles’ squad.
Prediction: Jets 24, Bills 17
— Written by Jake Rose, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @JakeRose24.