Rex Ryan brings his trademark swagger and unfiltered personality back to his old stomping grounds on Thursday night at MetLife Stadium, in the first meeting between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets since Ryan switched AFC East allegiances this winter.
While the off-field storylines and narratives surrounding "Rex Bowl I" have dominated the headlines leading up to this divisional showdown, as kickoff nears, the focus shifts to the critical on-field playoff implications of the game. The Bills and Jets are in the thick of the postseason race, both jockeying to secure one of two wild card spots in the AFC. The Jets (5-3) currently hold the conference's fifth seed, but the Bills (4-4) are lurking just a game behind, and a win would vault them into playoff position.
The Bills stopped their two-game slide and got back to .500 with a win over the Miami Dolphins on Sunday, and now try to win back-to-back games for the first time this season. If Buffalo is going to keep pace in the playoff race and snap the league's longest active postseason drought (15 seasons), it will need to navigate a daunting schedule over the next month. After Thursday's tilt in East Rutherford, the Bills have road trips to New England, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Washington, sandwiched around a home game against the Houston Texans in the first week of December.
It was a struggle, but the Jets also snapped a two-game losing streak on Sunday, beating the Jacksonville Jaguars at home to cement their first winning record at the season's midpoint since 2011. The Jets faded down the stretch that year, the first of four straight non-winning and playoff-less campaigns under Ryan that eventually led to his dismissal this offseason. The pressure is now on new head coach Todd Bowles to make a strong second-half push and deliver the franchise's first postseason berth in five years.
The Bills' offense has finally started to flourish after a rash of injuries, and the return to health of their key playmakers has made a colossal difference. With quarterback Tyrod Taylor back under center and wideout Sammy Watkins in the lineup on Sunday, the Bills rediscovered their offensive identity, exploding for 420 yards and 33 points. In the four games this season where Taylor, Watkins and LeSean McCoy all play, the Bills are 3-1 and averaging 33 points. When those three guys don't start together, the Bills are 1-3 and averaging only 19 points.
While Watkins' 168 receiving yards were huge for an offense that had lacked explosiveness in recent weeks, the key was the return of a dominant run game. Powered by the two-headed backfield monster of Karlos Williams (110 yards) and McCoy (112 yards), Buffalo rushed for 266 yards, its highest total in a game in nearly two decades. The Bills head into Thursday night with the AFC's top-ranked rushing offense (141.6 yards per game) and tied with the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons for the most rushing touchdowns in the NFL (11).
The Jets counter with the league's best rushing defense, allowing only 80.6 yards per game on the ground, and have given up just two rushing touchdowns all season. The rest of New York's defense, however, has struggled in the past few weeks. The Jets have surrendered an average of 29 points and 413 yards per game during their last three contests, a big dip from the numbers in their first five games (15 points and 269 yards per game).
If New York is going to be serious playoff contenders, it also needs to fix a slumping run game. Chris Ivory, who was one of the league's breakout stars in the first month, has become a black hole in the backfield. In the last three games, he's averaged a meager 1.5 yards per carry, with 55 rushes for 84 yards. In his first four games, he had 83 carries for 460 yards, equating to a robust 5.5 yards per rush.
Who to watch
While both these teams prefer a ground-and-pound style game, the matchup on the outside between Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis and Watkins should be must-see television (assuming the two are paired up opposite each other on Thursday night).
Despite turning 30 years old this summer, Revis remains one of the best cover guys in the league. He ranks third among cornerbacks per Pro Football Focus' grades, and has allowed only 46.5 percent of the passes sent his way to be caught. He already has three interceptions in eight games, his best single-season total since 2011. Revis hasn't shown any signs of slowing down, and needs to be at his best this week if he's going to shut down the Bills' dynamic wideout.
Watkins' return to action last Sunday ignited a dormant Bills offense, re-establishing himself as the key cog in Buffalo's aerial attack and one of the most dangerous receivers in the league. He accounted for a staggering 168 of the team's 181 yards, or 92.8 percent, the highest percentage of a team's receiving yards in a single game by any player in more than 15 years. Watkins now faces his toughest challenge yet on Thursday night, as he looks to wreck havoc on Revis Island and propel the Bills to a key divisional win over the Jets.
How to watch
When: 8:25 p.m. ET
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
TV: NFL Network
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Phil Simms, Tracy Wolfson
Online: NFL Game Pass
The Jets are 2.5-point favorites and the over/under is 42.5, per OddsShark.com.
There's not much consensus among the experts on this game. Over at CBS Sports, they are split down the middle with four guys taking Buffalo and four taking New York. Our SB Nation crew is heavily favoring the Jets, though, with only Joel Thorman picking the Bills.
For more on the Jets, head over to Gang Green Nation. To catch up on everything Bills, check out Buffalo Ramblings.