New York's Mark Sanchez, left, and Buffalo's Mario Williams must step up this season if their teams are to live up to expectations.
Are the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets contenders or pretenders ? We are about to find out right away where each AFC East team stands when the Jets host the Bills Sunday at MetLife Stadium in the regular-season opener.This is arguably the most underrated game on the NFL's Week 1 schedule. It involves two division rivals that finished with nonwinning records last season and face plenty of pressure to improve in 2012. The Jets are trying to prove last year's self-implosion was a fluke and that they are closer to the playoff team that recently made it to back-to-back AFC title games. The Bills, with a vastly improved roster, have outside hype and internal playoff aspirations for the first time in a long time.
It is the perfect measuring-stick game for both AFC East rivals."To get to where we want to be, we have to win games in the division," Bills tailback Fred Jackson told reporters in Buffalo this week. "We get a good test right out of the gate. We go out, go down to New York and try to get a win there."Without a doubt, we are excited about it. This is our chance to go out and prove what we felt this whole offseason."The Bills feel good about this year's team. But can they beat the Jets ? New York has had Buffalo's number the past few years. New York is an impressive 7-1 against Buffalo in its last eight meetings. The Jets have won five straight against the Bills, who last won in this series in 2009.In fact, Buffalo has been downright awful against the entire AFC East. The Bills are just 2-10 against division teams in two years under head coach Chan Gailey.
"They were better than us, but we gotta change that," Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix told the AFC East blog in training camp. "We hadn’t measured up in the two years we’d been here. Even though if we could’ve stayed healthy [last year] I thought we could've been in contention at the end."If the Bills are legit this year, as some people think, they go on the road and pick up a huge win Sunday against the Jets, who finished 8-8 last year.
Likewise, if the 2012 Jets are legit playoff contenders, they must defend their home field against the Bills, who were 6-10 last season. The fact that New York has owned Buffalo the past four years should provide the Jets plenty of confidence. The Jets can get much-needed momentum by picking up a division win at home.In many ways, New York or Buffalo can validate itself by winning in Week 1. It will be a nice statement that one of these teams has moved beyond its losing ways from 2011. The loser on Sunday will continue to face questions about being a pretender.Much of New York's and Buffalo's success in this game -- and this season -- comes down to the quarterbacks. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Bills counterpart Ryan Fitzpatrick have a lot to prove. Both have contracts totaling just under $120 million, and they have yet to show they are legitimate franchise quarterbacks.
About two-thirds of those responding to a recent AFC East blog poll think Fitzpatrick will have the better season. Fitzpatrick will be tested this weekend against a very good New York defense, while Sanchez must hope for better pass protection than he received this preseason against Buffalo's talented defensive line.
Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow also will have an impact in this game. But how much ? New York has been very coy this summer with its Wildcat packages. But the Bills did very well against Tebow and the similar read-option offense he ran with the Denver Broncos last year. Buffalo beat Denver 40-14 last December and pummeled Tebow. The quarterback completed just 13 of 29 passes for 185 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and was sacked four times.The Bills are well-versed in the Wildcat. Interestingly, Buffalo quarterbacks coach David Lee introduced Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to the Wildcat offense in Miami. The Jets have kept their package under wraps this preseason, but Buffalo should be one of the most prepared teams for the Tebow package that the Jets face all season."We'll see who out-executes the other," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said this week.This is a no-excuse year for the Jets and Bills. I don't want to hear about injuries this season in Buffalo, and I don't want to hear about poor chemistry in New York. If any team in the AFC East besides the New England Patriots is a legitimate playoff contender, it's time for the Jets or Bills to prove it.We will know a lot more about both AFC East teams following Sunday's game.
"I just want to have one more point than the Bills do and that's every week," Ryan said. "It doesn’t matter. The defense has to hold them to this. The offense has to score. We don’t care. It’s all about getting one more point than the opponent and that’s it. If that means we don’t score a touchdown and we still win, we’ll be happy and the Jet fans will be happy."
Just two Bills players are not participating in practice here on Monday. One on offense and one on defense.CB Ron Brooks and QB/WR Brad Smith both were not practicing. Smith was riding the stationary bike Monday during practice.
Five days before they face the Bills in the season opener, the Jets brought in two recently cut Bills for tryouts Tuesday -- P Shawn Powell and veteran WR Derek Hagan, according to a league source.
With regard to Hagan, the Jets could be keeping tabs on veteran receivers, just in case they decide to make a move. Hagan spent time last season with the Raiders, working under current Jets WRs coach Sanjay Lal.The Jets also worked out LS Charley Hughlett (Cowboys), LB D.J. Bryant (James Madison) and P Robert Malone (Chargers), whom they signed to replace T.J. Conley.
NOT GONE LONG :
The Jets re-signed DT Marcus Dixon, three days after his surprising release. His agent announced it on Twitter. It was a curious turn of events. It's not like the Jets saved any money by cutting and re-signing him. Dixon made the minimum then, and he'll make the minimum now -- $540,000.They re-signed Dixon after waiving DT Isaako Aaitui, whom they acquired on waivers Saturday from the Dolphins. He was waived injured, so it's possible that may have factored into the decision to bring back Dixon.
CINDERELLA STORY :
The feel-good story of cutdown weekend was rookie DT Damon Harrison, an undrafted free agent from William Penn.William Penn University is a small private school (1,800 students) in Oskaloosa, Iowa, and it plays at the NAIA level. Harrison, nicknamed "Big Snacks" by Rex Ryan, impressed throughout training camp and survived an edge-of-his-seat weekend.“I'm not going to say I made it, I know I haven't, I'm just fighting that human impulse to relax," Harrison said Monday. "I just tell myself everyday, 'You're about to get cut.' That keeps me working hard."Harrison was so grateful to teams that showed up for his Pro Day that he actually e-mailed thank-you notes to some of the GMs he was able to track down.
RIGHT ON, RIGHT GUARD :
RG Brandon Moore spent Tuesday, the players' off day, helping the community. Through his foundation, Moore and his wife provided backpacks and school supplies to about 100 kids at the Boys and Girls Club in Newark, where he holds an annual Christmas party. After that, Moore took about 40 kids school shopping at a local store.
The New York Jets -- and particularly quarterback Mark Sanchez -- enter the 2012 season under a ton of pressure. New York was one of the NFL’s biggest disappointments last year and had an 8-8 season.
With the regular season upon us, it's time to revisit the Jets' brutal schedule to open the season. Here is another look at New York's first five games :
Week 1: vs. Buffalo Bills
Week 2: at Pittsburgh Steelers
Week 3: at Miami Dolphins
Week 4: vs. San Francisco 49ers
Week 5: vs. Houston Texans
Three of the five opponents (Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Houston) made the playoffs last year and are Super Bowl contenders. Also, Buffalo is an up-and-coming team, a division rival and certainly not an easy opponent for New York’s home opener. The Jets will be favored to beat the Dolphins in Week 3, but New York lost to Miami in Sun Life Stadium to end the 2011 regular season.It’s not a stretch to envision the Jets going as bad as 1-4 in the first five games. But the Jets also have enough talent to go 3-2 or even 4-1 in this stretch if they execute well and stay together as a team.With so much pressure on the Jets and attention on the quarterback position, these first five games could determine New York’s season. That is why New York’s opener against Buffalo means so much for the Jets.
Rex Ryan can only think of one tougher assignment for Austin Howard than having to face new Buffalo defensive end Mario Williams in the Jets' season opener on Sunday."Probably the only thing worse would be the (DeMarcus) Ware kid," Ryan said Wednesday. "That probably would be the only bigger challenge."
Mario Williams stands 6-foot-6, weighs 292 pounds and has been selected to two Pro Bowls.Howard, the right tackle who will be making just his second career start and his first with the Jets, will likely see plenty of Williams when the AFC East foes clash Sunday. Howard was recently anointed the team's starting right tackle in place of the traded Wayne Hunter, and will have no time to ease into his new role."We respect their defense a lot, but we're very confident as an offensive line," Howard said. "We're all looking forward to this game and just want to get out there and play our best and prepare how we know to prepare and just get it going."Williams, who spent six seasons in Houston, made life tougher for all AFC East tackles when he brought his 53 career sacks to Buffalo this offseason after signing a six-year deal. While Williams didn't say on a conference call if he'd be lining up more at right defensive end or on the left against the Jets, Ryan has no doubt he'll see Williams lined up against Howard.
While battles between tackles and defensive ends can be billed as one-on-one showdowns, Howard isn't looking at it that way. He wants to be solid in his entire game, from his run blocking to his pass protecting, and be part of a cohesive unit. He described Williams as a quick player with long arms, the attributes of a great pass rusher."As a unit we just want to play together, make sure we protect the passer and make some big holes for the runners," Howard said. "That's our goals and that's what we're going to try to do."As he prepares to face Williams, Howard will use lessons he learned from facing Ware in his first career start in 2010, for Philadelphia. Howard is only in his third season and has played in just four games, so any experience he has is vital for his preparation."I learned a lot from that game in terms of sets, preparing, make sure I'm ready for the game and in terms of pass-blocking techniques," said the 25-year-old. "You learn every game you get a chance to get out there."
The Jets can help Howard out Sunday with chip blocks and double teams, but as Ryan recognized, they can't help him out on every play. He's going to have to win the individual battles. His quarterback seems confident his right tackle will keep him upright."We're expecting Austin to play well against someone who is very talented," Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez said. "A guy like Mario Williams, he's a game-changing type player. It's important to block him up and get rid of the football."
Welcome to another year of "Walker's AFC East predictions." We did a solid job a year ago and expect to do even better in 2012. Usually, we will reserve the picks for later in the week. But this time, the AFC East blog will release its picks a little earlier since it’s Week 1.
Let’s get right into the festivities.
~ ~ Bills at Jets, Sunday at 1 p.m.
This is a big opener in the division, and the AFC East blog will be there to take in the action. This game isn’t everything, but it will determine who has the inside track in the battle for second place in the division. I picked the Bills over a 16-game season. However, the Jets have more on the line in this particular game. If they lose at home, things could come apart quickly, particularly if the offense and starting quarterback Mark Sanchez are not up to par. I think you’re going to see a lot of urgency from New York in this opener, and the Jets have won five straight against the Bills. I don’t know where the Jets will get their points, but I think New York’s defense plays lights out and does just enough to win ugly at home.
Not a surprise here, but Rex Ryan said Thursday that backup S Eric Smith (hip, knee) won't play Sunday against the Bills.
"It's pretty much official," Ryan said.
This is a semi-significant loss for the Jets. Not only is Smith a valuable contributor on special teams, but he plays in different sub packages on defense. He plays in the 'Big Nickel," when they go to a three-safety look, and he plays in some dime packages on passing downs.Against the Bills' spread offense, the Jets figure to be in nickel and dime most of the game. Smith's absence elevates rookie S Josh Bush, the only other backup safety on the 53-man roster.Smith was injured in the first preseason game.
INJURY UPDATE :
TE Dustin Keller (pulled hamstring), who didn't practice Wednesday, is unlikely to practice Thursday. He did some side work Wednesday and looked "decent," according to Ryan, who added: "I'm still hopefull he'll play, but we'll see." We should know more on NT Sione Po'uha (back) later in the day; he was limited Wednesday.