hursday night’s football game is one that has been looked forward to all year. Literally.
The moment Rex Ryan signed a five-year contract to coach the Buffalo Bills on Jan. 8, his first visit to Met Life Stadium for a divisional showdown with the New York Jets instantly became a showcase game, likely to wind up in primetime with a stage all its own. The show is set to start. Since Ryan is involved, describing it as a circus is unavoidable. Whether you see him as showman or clown, at least he’s always entertaining.
Ryan opened the week intent on stirring the pot by naming IK Enempkpali, who joined the Bills after being cut by New York for breaking QB Geno Smith’s jaw in the preseason, one of his game captains. He’s traded quips through the media with Jets QBRyan Fitzpatrick and safety Calvin Pryor, who exclaimed on Twitter that “the guy does anything for attention.”
“He’s right. What else am I going to do? Just stand up here?” Ryan responded. “He’s mad because Clemson put it on Louisville again.”
Between wearing Tigers helmets to press conferences and tweaking his former employer at every turn, the expectation is that Ryan has found the time to get his Bills ready for what is set to be a daunting challenge at Met Life Stadium. The Jets sit ahead of them in the AFC East, currently residing in the top Wild Card spot under first-year head coach Todd Bowles, who has stayed true to his own nature and left Ryan with a solo role in the sideshow. Although both teams have dealt with injuries, they’ve reached the season’s second half squarely in the playoff picture.
Although the Bills have dominated this matchup of late, winning the last three contests by a combined margin of 118-40, recent history flies out the window with Ryan switching sidelines. New York is listed as a 2.5-point favorite, but enters this one with a few more health-related question marks than Buffalo.
The largest of those received a positive response, as center Nick Mangold, the unquestioned leader of the Jets offensive line, will play despite a neck injury that knocked him out of Sunday’s win over Jacksonville. The news isn’t expected to be as positive regarding key cornerback Antonio Cromartie, who has a deep thigh bruise that has kept him from running in practice. The nine-year veteran has been picked on a lot over the last few weeks, but he’s also never missed a game due to injury.
Cromartie’s potential absence compounds New York’s issues in the secondary, since Pryor, Ryan’s last first-round pick with the Jets, will miss his third consecutive game due to an ankle injury.
With key backup Dion Bailey also sidelined with a bum ankle and Buster Skrinequestionable, Jets DBs not named Darrelle Revis may have serious issues covering Bills receivers. Dee Milliner, a former first-rounder who has disappointed and hasn’t played all season, has been activated from short-term IR and may find himself in a key role immediately.
Buffalo got starting QB Tyrod Taylor back on Sunday after nearly a one-month absence that only cost him two games, both Bills losses. He completed 11 of 12 passes in a 33-17 win over the Dolphins and may pose issues for the injury-riddled Jets defense with his ability to get out of the pocket and keep drives alive with his legs.
The Jets front four is among the best in football and have been productive, doing the heavy lifting on what’s been the NFL’s top run defense. It’s going to be interesting to see how they fare in facing the first true running QB they’ve seen since Johnny Manziel entered the season opener after Josh McCown suffered a concussion. Taylor has rushed for at least 40 yards in four of his six starts and has broken three runs of 20 yards or more, but has also created huge plays in the passing game via deep balls and defensive breakdowns.
Top target Sammy Watkins returned from a two-game absence due to an ankle injury that’s still not completely healed and burned Miami for eight catches and 168 yards, scoring on a 44-yarder and also hauling in a season-long 63-yarder. Count on the Bills taking shots against New York’s defensive backs.
The Jets should similarly be aggressive since Fitzpatrick has proven he is capable of getting his job done despite torn ligaments in his left non-throwing thumb that will likely be repaired via surgery on Friday morning. He operated mostly out of shotgun in a 28-23 win over the Jaguars, completing 21-of-34 for 272 yards and two touchdowns. Brandon Marshall will be facing the Bills for the first time as a Jet and has really added a dynamic element to the Jets offense, allowing Eric Decker to flourish as the No. 2 option.