Welcome to the end of the 2016 regular season for the Buffalo Bills. With only one game left to play before one of the more intriguing offseasons in recent memory opens up, the Bills will be favored team to come away with a victory on Sunday.
This is essentially a late in the season exhibition game for these two teams, with both wanting to get some time to their younger players that they’d like to evaluate for the 2017 season. So from a Bills perspective, what should you be keeping an eye on?
Five things to watch for when the Bills take on the Jets:
1) Will the players come out flat?
- This usually goes one of two ways for teams that are either eliminated from the playoffs the week before, or, their head coach gets fired. The team either responds in a big way — putting together a great performance, or, it enters a run-for-the-bus situation where the team falls completely flat. For the 2016 Buffalo Bills, they have both of the elements added in: eliminated from the playoffs, and the coach got fired all in the span of four days. How they respond to interim head coach Anthony Lynn, if it’s for the worse, won’t reflect poorly on him as a head coaching candidate — seeing as how he missed out on three days of potential planning time with such a late-in-the-week firing of Rex Ryan. It’s really all about motivation this week. Are all the veteran players going to play with a similar enthusiasm against the Jets to when they were still alive for the playoffs? Will the young players dig within themselves to play at a maximum level, even though they haven’t dealt with this too often — if at all? Those are legitimate questions for the Bills as they head into their regular season finale. It really all just depends on what kind of players — and personalities in the locker room the team has.
2) The EJ show
- Goodbye, Tyrod Taylor and hello, EJ Manuel. With the switch of head coaches this week, the front office also made the call to switch things up at quarterback — even though Tyrod Taylor had his best game of his career the previous weekend. Even so, the Bills made the pragmatic business decision to bench Taylor to avoid the risk of the quarterback suffering a serious injury and the franchise having to be on the hook for all the guaranteed money that he’s owed. With Taylor out of the lineup, and not even the backup, the team has turned to their former first-round pick. Manuel’s last start is one everyone remembers: when the Bills lost a heartbreaker in London to the Jacksonville Jaguars, with the quarterback’s second quarter meltdown being the biggest reason for them to fall short in that contest. Now, Manuel will get the chance to show what a year-and-a-half on the bench has taught him. The former first-round pick is set to become an unrestricted free agent, and Sunday will provide him an opportunity to convince the front office that he should return in some capacity in 2017. The front office and general manager Doug Whaley, for whatever reason, seems hellbent on net letting the Manuel pick go to waste — so he’ll have every chance in this game to prove himself. Expect a lot of short throws and an overall dependence on the running game, because that is what the Bills devised for him the last two starts he’s made, in the effort to try and limit his mistakes.
3) Kevon Seymour’s final exam
- He’s had a couple of opportunities throughout the year, but Sunday is rookie cornerback Kevon Seymour’s day to strut his stuff. Not only will he be making another start for the Bills in the final game of the regular season, he’ll also be playing at right cornerback — the spot that has been occupied by Stephon Gilmore for the entire season. Gilmore is an unrestricted free agent at season’s end, and with the way that he’s played over the last two months of the season, his price tag will likely be humongous. For the Bills, as strapped against the cap as they are — even with a great deal of unrestricted free agents set to have their contracts expire that they have — it makes the idea of keeping Gilmore at the price he’ll likely command a daunting task. With Kevon Seymour, they’re holding out hope that the sixth-round pick can defy the odds stacked against a player drafted that late, and to take hold of Gilmore’s old starting job in 2017 and beyond. It would go a long way for him to have a solid performance in this game — especially when he’s lined up against the likes of Brandon Marshall.
4) Kouandjio making a case?
- Don’t look now, but Cyrus Kouandjio has been outstanding since Cordy Glenn has been unable to play late in the season. Kouandjio has filled in admirably the past two weeks, and with another good performance in a matchup that will test the Bills up front at times, he has the ability to make the front office seriously re-evaluate what they have at the tackle position currently, and perhaps even lessen the need to address right tackle with a significant offseason resource (high draft pick, cap room). There is this caveat, though: Kouandjio has not been able to perform consistently on the right side, and there is rampant speculation that it has something to do with the knee injury he’s been dealing with since entering the draft in 2014. On the left side, Kouandjio has been solid all the way around. If Kouandjio gives them enough of a case at left tackle, he could put the Bills in a spot where they think about seeing if he can transfer the success to the right side at long last, or even more experimental, ponder putting Cordy Glenn on the right side and leaving Kouandjio at left tackle. The latter seems highly unlikely, considering just how good Glenn has been for his entire career on the left side. Regardless, Sunday looms large for the former second-round pick.
5) Logan Thomas alert
- The Bills might just try out their brand new toy on the offensive side of the ball this week. With nothing to lose, the time to break the glass on tight end project Logan Thomas appears to be this weekend. Thomas, a super intriguing pass catching option that spent his first two season in the NFL as a quarterback, has been working with the coaching staff the past several weeks to try and become as game ready as possible. The 6-foot-6, 250-pound player was originally the top tight end recruit in the nation when coming out of high school, went to Virginia Tech, and promptly switched to quarterback. It doesn’t seem likely that Thomas would get a ton of offensive snaps, but it would be fair to expect a handful of pass-friendly downs to evaluate what he can be as an option at tight end. Charles Clay will still be the starting tight end, but Thomas provides one of the most intriguing storylines of this game if he flashes some big ability with that type of combination of size and speed.
OUT: LT Cordy Glenn (back), CB Stephon Gilmore (concussion)
QUESTIONABLE: ILB Zach Brown (illness), DL Kyle Williams (back), WR Sammy Watkins (foot), TE Charles Clay (knee), RG John Miller (hip_, ILB Preston Brown (foot)
New York Jets
OUT: RB Matt Forte (knee), TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins (hamstring), DL Steve McLendon (hamstring), OLB Lorenzo Mauldin (ankle)
DOUBTFUL: DB Nick Marshall (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: WR Brandon Marshall (hip/shoulder), RB Bilal Powell (knee/illness), WR Robby Anderson (hamstring), RB Brandon Wilds (hamstring), DB Juston Burris (knee), DL Sheldon Richardson (back), DL Muhammad Wilkerson (ankle/knee)
Prediction: Jets over Bills
- The Bills should be able to run on the Jets under normal circumstances, but against EJ Manuel, I’d expect the Jets to stack the box and force Manuel to show that he can throw the ball accurately in the intermediate-to-long areas of the field — something he has struggled with mightily in the past. Call it a hunch, but the way players have been talking all week long, the way everything happened over the course of last weekend and then on Tuesday… it almost feels like the air has been let out of the balloon before the party’s over. Under normal circumstances, if the Bills were still alive in the playoffs, I’d pick the Bills in a heartbeat. But there’s something about this week, and how jarring it’s been — and it’s hard to ignore. Plus, this could be Ryan Fitzpatrick’s final hurrah as a starting quarterback in the NFL, so there’s likely a lot of motivation from the former Bills starter to go out with a great performance against a weakened and now inexperienced secondary— something he’s been prone to do every once and again. So, reluctantly, I’ve got the Jets winning this game.
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