Before the season, this looked like one of the worst games on the always-mediocre Thursday night schedule. Most would have agreed with you if you predicted that the Bills and Jets wouldn’t combine to win eight games in the entire season.
Yet here we are, halfway through the regular season, and two teams many were accusing of tanking in early September have already matched that eight-win total. The 3–5 Jets already have a three-game winning streak behind them (although they have since dropped three in a row), while the Bills are 5–2, a half-game behind the Patriots, Steelers and Chiefs for the best record in the AFC. Buffalo is so serious about ending a 17-year playoff drought that it just traded draft picks to Carolina for receiver Kelvin Benjamin.
Thing is, this is pretty much a must-win game for either team if they really want to shock the experts and make the playoffs. The Jets obviously can’t afford a sixth loss because they’d have to run the table. While the Bills would still look solid at 5–3, their next four are against the Saints, at the Chargers, at the Chiefs and at home for New England. With a leaky pass defense and that stretch of quarterbacks ahead, 6–2 would feel a whole lot better.
Buffalo at New York
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 2 at 8:25 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NFL Network
Spread: Bills -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Bills' running game is back in a big way
From Weeks 2-5 this season, the Bills averaged just 85.8 yards per game on the ground, and they had scored just one rushing touchdown through five weeks. That’s a big drop-off for a team that led the NFL in rushing (164.4 ypg) and rushing touchdowns (29) last season. But Buffalo took advantage of the bye week to tweak its run game, incorporating more of the power runs used last season and less outside zone runs usually favored by offensive coordinator Rick Dennison. The results? A strong 173 rushing yards against the Bucs and 166 against the Raiders with two rushing scores in each game. Granted, Tampa Bay and Oakland are not among the league’s best against the run, but the Jets are worse than both (27th in the NFL) and allowed the Bills to gash them for 190 yards on the ground in the season opener. And that was before Buffalo went back to what it does best. LeSean McCoy also likes the national stage, averaging 140 yards from scrimmage in six career Thursday night games.
2. Turnovers will likely tell the tale
The Bills lead the NFL in turnover margin at plus-14 — tied for first in takeaways (17) and giveaways (3). The Jets have actually been good at forcing turnovers (13, tied for sixth), but offensively they have been very generous. Only four teams have turned it over more than New York’s 14. They have at least one giveaway in every game and more than one in five of their eight contests. While Jets quarterback Josh McCown (above, right) is hitting a career-high 70.5 percent of his passes, he has thrown seven interceptions, and only Jacoby Brissett has been sacked more this season. McCown under pressure facing Micah Hyde (NFL-best five interceptions) and a ball-hawking secondary seems like a recipe for disaster for the Jets. The Bills have forced multiple turnovers in every game but one this season and at least three in four straight games. Don’t be shocked if that streak continues.
3. On the other hand, it may be McCown’s last stand
Once the Jets drop out of the playoff race, there’s little reason to keep playing the 38-year-old McCown. But for one more week, at least, he gives them the best chance to win, especially against a Bills defense that has allowed three straight opposing passers to throw for more than 300 yards. McCown lit the Patriots up for 354 yards a few weeks ago, and he should be able to find open receivers against a defense that ranks 29th against the pass but third against the run. McCown just has to take care of the ball.
As we said, both this teams have been better than expected this season, and in a division rematch anything can happen. As good as the Bills have been, they certainly can’t look past anyone. But so many things would have to go against the trends for the Jets to win — stop the run, take care of the ball and force some turnovers against a team that rarely takes any risks? It seems too much to ask.
Prediction: Bills 27, Jets 16
(Josh McCown photo courtesy of www.newyorkjets.com)