The calendar has shifted into 2016, and the only thing that separates the Buffalo Bills from shifting into offseason mode is one last 60-minute contest — a home game against the favored New York Jets.
The Jets are coming into the game white-hot, having won each of their last five contests, and simultaneously putting themselves in a great spot to make it to the playoffs. Last time around, the Bills pulled off a victory on the road, but this time, injuries have dramatically re-shaped how this Bills team stacks up.
Even still, do they have what it takes to pull off the upset? Five things to watch for:
1) Playing the spoiler role
- When a team is eliminated from playoff contention late in the year, many times it’s hard for that team to find motivational reasons in the final weeks of the season. This game against the New York Jets should not be one of those instances, because even though the Bills cannot control their own destiny, they can control the destiny of the rival New York Jets. A pair of players, even as early as last Sunday, commented on how the Week 17 showdown would be the Bills’ “Super Bowl.” It’s pretty simple for the Jets — if they win, they’re in the playoffs as one of the two Wildcard teams. If they lose, and the Pittsburgh Steelers beat a Cleveland Browns that will have Austin Davis as their starting quarterback, the Jets will be on the outside looking in of the playoffs. Despite the motivation, the Bills will have their work cut out for them, as seven of the players that started the Week 10 win over the Jets are no longer on the active roster.
2) Fitzpatrick’s return to Buffalo
- For the first time since he was released by the Buffalo Bills ahead of the 2013 season, former starting quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick will start a game at Ralph Wilson Stadium as a member of the visiting team. If the playoffs being on the line wasn’t enough for Fitzpatrick, the looming trip to the place that he called home for a few years has to put it over the edge for his own personal motivation. It’s no coincidence that the Jets rise up the playoff standings have been paired with Fitzpatrick’s incredible five-week stretch. In the last five games — all wins, mind you — Fitzpatrick has thrown for an average of 305 yards per game, he’s connected for 13 touchdowns, and most importantly, he’s thrown only one interception over that span. He has been as efficient a quarterback as he has been in his entire career, and has the Jets on the cusp of the playoffs. A win on Sunday for him, in the once comfy confines of Orchard Park, would truly be full circle for the journeyman quarterback.
3) Watkins vs. Revis, Part Deux
- In the last game against the Jets, the Bills burgeoning wide receiver Sammy Watkins was held to just three receptions and 14 yards, while being shadowed by cornerback Darrelle Revis all game long. Even though the statistics weren’t there for Watkins on seven total targets, he made clutch plays at enormous times for the Bills to help secure the victory, and completely turned Revis inside out on a few plays. Even when you see the coaches’ film, Watkins was getting open much more than he was targeted, but it wasn’t taken advantage of often enough. This time around, Watkins is hoping for more targets against Revis and a bigger footprint on the game, but that won’t be up to him. The Bills have gotten much better as the season has gone on to manufacture targets for Watkins. Now, with the knowledge that Watkins can win consistently against Revis, and really not playing for anything, they should try to allow the young wide receiver take over the game, and put an exclamation point on a fantastic second half of the season.
4) McKelvin is key
- The best news that the Bills received all week was that rookie cornerback Ronald Darby would be available to them, which meant that they wouldn’t be going into a game against a potent passing attack with Leodis McKelvin as their top cornerback. To McKelvin’s credit, he had a solid output against the Dallas Cowboys — but that was against the weak-armed Kellen Moore and a receiver group without Dez Bryant. This week, McKelvin will be up against Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker, and any other Jets receivers that they trot out on to the field. The Bills won’t have Darby follow Marshall all game long, which means McKelvin will have to step up in those times. Fitzpatrick knows McKelvin quite well, and likely won’t be afraid of testing the veteran cornerback. How he responds will be critical to the outcome of the game.
5) Containing Mo Wilkerson
- Last time the Bills played against the Jets, they had normal starting right tackle Seantrel Henderson in the lineup, and he drew the unenviable assignment of trying to stop defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson. The result? One of Henderson’s worst performances of the season, and six tackles, three quarterback hits, and two sacks/tackles for loss by Wilkerson. This time around, Wilkerson will be up against Jordan Mills, who from a talent perspective, is an inferior player to Henderson. The Bills will need to consistently help Mills to prevent Wilkerson from taking over a game — which isn’t out of the ordinary for Wilkerson against the Bills. Since 2013, Wilkerson has 26 tackles, 4.5 sacks, and a forced fumble in five matchups against the Bills. Especially in what could be his last game before he becomes an unrestricted free agent, Wilkerson has every motivation and opportunity to standout in this game.
OUT: LB Nigel Bradham (ankle), HB LeSean McCoy (knee)
PROBABLE: S Bacarri Rambo (knee), CB Ronald Darby (groin), QB Tyrod Taylor (right shoulder), G John Miller (ankle), DT Marcell Dareus (neck), DE Mario Williams (hand), WR Chris Hogan (wrist)
New York Jets
QUESTIONABLE: T Breno Giacomini (ankle), HB Bilal Powell (ankle), TE Kellen Davis (foot)
PROBABLE: WR Brandon Marshall (ankle), LB Calvin Pace (abdomen), LB Lorenzo Mauldin (back), WR Kenbrell Tompkins (quadricep), WR Eric Decker (knee), HB Chris Ivory (knee), CB Dee Milliner (hamstring), WR Quincy Enunwa (neck), DE Muhammad Wilkerson (toe), LB Erin Henderson (illness), LB Demario Davis (wrist), QB Ryan Fitzpatrick (left thumb)
Prediction: Jets over Bills
- The Week 10 contest in New Jersey was close, and one that featured a pair of evenly matched teams. Unfortunately for the Bills, their seasons have gone in opposite directions, as has the overall health of the rosters. For Buffalo, they’ll be without LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, Robert Woods, Nigel Bradham, Stephon Gilmore, and Seantrel Henderson — all of which played in the last meeting between the two squads. The depleted Bills roster, combined with the Jets talent, current hot streak, and overall motivation to get to the postseason this year gives them the edge in this contest. What a story it would be, if Ryan Fitzpatrick clinches a postseason berth for a different team in his first trip back to Ralph Wilson Stadium — and it very well could happen on Sunday.
*Season-long record predicting Bills games: 8-7
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