(Photo Courtesy of Fox Sports)
With an opportunity to place themselves firmly within the AFC playoff picture, the Bills journey to New York to take on a very familiar divisional foe.
Here are three things the Bills need to have happen in order to obtain a vital victory on the road.
1. Tyrod Shines in His First Taste of Primetime
As a fan I’m nervous about tonight’s game. Weirdly, those nerves don’t stem from a belief in logic or sense. Despite my bias, and my sometimes-unreasonable optimism in the team, the Bills appear to be better than the Jets. My hesitance in confidently picking the Bills to emerge victorious tonight is entirely a product of emotion.
For as long as I can remember, the Bills, far more often than not, have lost big games. Whether it’s early season games, or midseason matchups, or those rare end-of-season encounters with playoff implications, the Bills continuously manage to find ways to end up on the wrong end of the score. That theme isn’t coincidental. That theme is largely a product of having a disadvantage at the most important position on the field. Whether it was a young hopeful (Trent Edwards, J.P. Losman), or an aging vet past his prime (Drew Bledsoe), or a journeyman (Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Orton), this team has always managed to find a quarterback that floundered when they needed him most.
Tyrod Taylor has his first opportunity tonight to truly separate himself from his disappointing predecessors.
In 6 starts, Taylor has led the Bills to a 4-2 record. Statistically, he ranks among the leagues best in complete percentage (1st), yards per attempt (3rd), quarterback rating (4th), and QBR (6th). He’s also protected the ball well, and has continuously managed to create big plays. In wins, Taylor has been efficient through the air, and has exemplified the ability to create plays with his feet when plays break down. Even in losses against the Pats and Giants, Taylor has shaken off slow starts to rally and put his team in a position to win. Plus, it’s surely not difficult to see the Bills sitting at 5-3 instead of 4-4 if Taylor hadn’t missed two games due to an MCL injury.
Despite all those positives, it’s natural to worry that Taylor might take a step back tonight. Much like Edwards and Fitzpatrick inspired hope with hot starts to their Buffalo careers, it’s entirely possible that Taylor will experience a similar fade into mediocrity. However, I don’t think that happens.
While the Jets possess a fierce defensive line, and a plenty capable Darrelle Revis, Taylor has every opportunity to lead the Bills offense to a productive night. The line in front of him is healthy, comes off a dominant performance against Miami, and has benefitted from the return of Aaron Kromer. The skill players around him, namely Sammy Watkins, LeSean McCoy, and Karlos Williams, have returned from their respective injuries with big performances. Their return has also pushed Charles Clay, Robert Woods, and Chris Hogan into complimentary positions where they should be primed to take advantage of their matchups.
If offensive coordinator Greg Roman can compliment Taylor and his teammates with creative play-calling, particularly on first down, the Bills offense should put up the necessary points to depart MetLife Stadium with a vital victory.
And in doing so, tonight will be the night that Tyrod Taylor formally introduces himself to America.
2. Force Ryan Fitzpatrick to Beat You
While Fitzpatrick has certainly played well so far this season, the quick start to his Jets career feels pretty familiar.
When the Harvard graduate (Did you know he went to Harvard?) operated in Buffalo under current New York offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, the quick decision making, the fearlessness (both throwing and running), and the all-out effort it required to throw each ball was certainly endearing. However, his inconsistencies eventually grew old in Buffalo. And they also grew old in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Tennessee, and Houston.
Though Fitzpatrick may tell you that he’s progressed and learned from his many changes of address, and the local and national media may point to the improved collection of skill players around him, I find it hard to believe that a 32-year-old in his 11th season has all of a sudden become a top quarterback in the NFL (as his 3rd best QBR might indicate).
If I’m the Bills, my gameplan is a fairly simple one defensively. Stop the run, play press coverage on Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker, and force Fitzpatrick into throwing into tight windows, or into secondary reads.
Stopping the run seems like it should happen. The Bills rank 6th in rushing yards allowed per game, and 10th in yards allowed per rush. Perhaps more encouraging, the Jets have done little in recent weeks to instill fear in the Bills front seven. Chris Ivory has put forth three straight subpar performances (17 carries for 41 yards against NE, 15 carries for 17 yards against OAK, 23 carries for 26 yards against JAX), and as a result, the Jets have gone 1-2 during that stretch. Even with Nick Mangold returning from injury, the Bills should be able to force New York into relying more upon their passing attack to move the ball.
With that in mind, the Bills need to find a way to prevent Ryan Fitzpatrick from getting the ball out of his hands quickly, and with accuracy. Although it’s easier said than done, the Bills linebackers and secondary need to be physical with the Jets skill players at the line of scrimmage. Stephon Gilmore’s physicality should matchup well with Marshall, and Ronald Darby, while he did yield a fair amount against Miami, should bounce back well against Eric Decker. If the corners can continue their strong play, the Bills also need better performances against the pass from Preston Brown and Nigel Bradham. Each has managed to make poorly-timed errors in failing to wrap up free backs out of the backfield, and one has to expect Gailey’s affinity for screens will test the discipline of the Bills’ young, every-down linebackers.
If the Bills can limit Ivory, and prevent quick separation by the receivers, Fitzpatrick will be forced into contested throws, or hold onto the ball and potentially face pressure from the likes of Jerry Hughes, Marcell Dareus, and Mario Williams.
Though I may eat my words, and it truly would be disheartening to see Fitzpatrick douse the club’s newfound playoff hopes, I think the Bills’ much-scrutinized defense has a ripe opportunity to help their head coach attain a little revenge against the club that fired him.
3. Don’t be Dumb
While that bolded headline might be putting it a bit plainly, the Bills losses have largely been a product of self-inflicted wounds.
Against the Patriots, poor defensive scheming, and a steady supply of personal foul penalties aided Tom Brady’s surgical precision through the air.
Against the Giants, it was a similar story. Penalties extended drives and turned opposing field goals into touchdowns. Penalties wiped out potentially game-changing big plays on offense. And a crucial missed open field tackle by Nigel Bradham put the game out of reach.
Against the Bengals, while the Bills were outplayed throughout most of the game, inconsistencies from their quarterback, and heavily advantageous Cincinnati field position (which was provided by Buffalo special teams penalties), certainly didn’t help their chances.
Lastly, a disastrous second quarter from EJ Manuel, and a timely (and also truly terrible) pass interference call on Nickell Roby sent the Bills home from London with a disappointing loss to Jacksonville.
All that considered, it’s not a stretch to say that the Bills haven’t been thoroughly outclassed by any of their opponents, but instead, they’ve beaten themselves.
Needless to say, that can’t be the case tonight. While their inability to control their emotions against New England doomed them, the Bills players, and more importantly their coaches, have to maintain a level of discipline against the Jets. If they can do that, and if the coaches and players can combine to execute an effective gameplan against an all too familiar foe, the Bills’ superior talent in all three phases should shine through.