The race to the bottom of the AFC East will start Sunday as the New York Jets visit the Buffalo Bills in a battle that could give insight as to which team is not the worst in the NFL.
The division rivals last met in Week 17 of the 2016 season in a meaningless game — the Jets’ 30-10 win may not have even changed their draft position. While that game was meaningless, we may look back at the 2017 season opener and consider it one of the most meaningful games on the Jets’ schedule.
In the offseason, both New York and Buffalo completely tore down their rosters. The Jets got rid of nearly every veteran, including wide receivers Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker as well as franchise cornerstones Darrelle Revis, Nick Mangold and David Harris. They even opted to prioritize youth last week by cutting the previously longest-tenured Jet, long snapper Tanner Purdum.
While New York’s roster overhaul began early in the offseason, the Bills didn’t begin theirs until the summer. August saw the departures of Sammy Watkins, Reggie Ragland and Ronald Darby via trade. The Bills, who now have the fourth-oldest starting lineup in football, are in a peculiar situation.
So here we are, getting ready to kickoff another NFL season, with a dreadful — yet crucial — matchup on the horizon.
Buffalo caught a break if its actually trying to win in learning quarterback Tyrod Taylor cleared concussion protocol and will start Sunday. In 2016, the dual-threat quarterback started 15 games, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 3,023 yards, 17 touchdowns and six interceptions. While he successfully avoided turnovers, he led an unimpressive Bills’ passing offense that finished 30th in yards per game.
Taylor’s main target will now be Jordan Matthews, the 25-year-old wide receiver who was acquired in the Darby trade. Matthews had back-to-back solid seasons in Philadelphia and will be the first test for new Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne.
The more intriguing matchup, however, will be how the Jets handle LeSean McCoy, a shifty running back that has pass catching skills as good as any back in the game. McCoy, who has averaged over three catches per game in his career, racked up over 1,600 all-purpose yards a year ago and is probably the best offensive playmaker in this game.
New York head coach Todd Bowles has a unique decision to make while handling McCoy. Bowles could employ multiple players to cover McCoy out of the backfield, including rookie safeties Jamal Adams or Marcus Maye as well as linebacker Darron Lee.
The main challenge for the Jets’ offense will be setting the tempo on the ground. Buffalo’s defense allowed the fewest rushing yards per game and returns its entire defensive line. Establishing the run game will be vital to ease the load on Josh McCown, the 38-year-old journeyman who is making his Jets debut.
McCown, who’s last opening day start came against the Jets as a member of the Browns, has a challenge of his own: finding playmakers. The Jets’ wide receiver group might be the least proven in the league and, truthfully, it’s still unknown how many snaps each pass catcher will play. Robby Anderson and Jermaine Kearse will be the likely starters, but behind them is a mixed bag of youngsters, and special teamers — including newly-acquired Jeremy Kerley.
Bovada has set the New York Jets’ total wins over/under at 4.5, and some even consider that generous, but Gang Green will have a fair opportunity to pick up its first in its first game.
Note: This story was first published on Sept. 7, 2017.