In a few ways, the Jets and the Bills from Orchard Park, NY, to start the 2020 NFL season today is a lot like previous opening days for the Green & White.
They're playing Buffalo — no shock there since the teams have met twice a year as division rivals since they began life in the old American Football League on opening day 1960, with the Jets prevailing 27-3 at the old Polo Grounds.
In fact, the Jets have opened 14 seasons against the "Thundering Herd," their most against any opponent, and posted eight wins, also their most vs. any foe. This is the second straight season and third in the last four that the AFC East rivals have opened against each other.
Also, the CBS TV crew, while not a longtime chronicler of Jets games, is still familiar to them and their fans. Andrew Catalon is doing Jets play-by-play for the 10th game since 2014, And James Lofton, the illustrious Pro Football Hall of Fame wide receiver who played four of his 16 seasons with the Bills, is working his 10th Jets game since 1997 as the network analyst and his fourth Jets game with Catalon since 2017.
But soon the similarities break down and we begin to appreciate the differences between this opening day and others, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the precautions the NFL is taking because of it to open the new season.
Teams around the league have been limiting the attendance to their games at least in the early going to players, coaches, team executives and assorted media — but no fans. Today's game at Bills Stadium — the stadium name another change, since the New Era Cap company was released from its naming rights deal in July — will be the first with no rabid red-white-and-blue-clad Bills fans in the stands.
"It's funny," Lofton told the Buffalo News this week. "I've been in the stadium a lot of times when it's been empty, when we were practicing, the day before a game. But on gameday, this is going to be a new experience for everybody. ... It's going to feel a little disjointed."
Another different element, for the Jets at least, is QB depth. Sam Darnold will start, of course, in his third year with the Green & White, and will go up once more against his fellow 2017 first-round draft choice, Bills QB Josh Allen.
See the Green and White Arriving for the Week 1 Matchup Against the Bills
But who will Darnold's backup be? Not Joe Flacco, the veteran who's still rehabbing his neck and won't serve as backup for possibly a few more weeks. Not rookie James Morgan.
But the Jets did place Mike White and David Fales, their other backup QBs from training camp, on their practice squad. White was signed off the squad and will serve as Darnold's understudy vs. the Bills.
Which brings us to another thing that has changed this year: the active/inactive list rules. Because of COVID, the league has raised the gameday active roster number for each team from 46 to 48 players. The extra two players can be elevated from their expanded practice squad roster, increasing the full gameday roster from 53 to 55 players, and those two players can then return those two players to their P-squad after the game.
Head coach Adam Gase has activated WR Josh Malone and RB Josh Adams from his practice squad. Those two moves were made with an eye toward injuries at the position. Rookie WR Denzel Mims, after looking to be ready to go early last week, has been sidelined with injuries to both hamstrings, and rookie RB La'Mical Perine is still coming back from his ankle injury sustained at the Jets' MetLife Stadium practice a few weeks ago.
There will still be seven inactives for each team each game. The Jets' full inactive list today:
- QB James Morgan
- QB Joe Flacco
- WR Denzel Mims
- RB La'Mical Perine
- LB Avery Williamson
- DL Bryce Huff
- DL John Franklin-Myers
Safety Marcus Maye, battling calf and ankle injuries during the week, is active.
And the Bills' six-man inactive list after CB Josh Norman (hamstring) was placed on IR:
- QB Jake Fromm
- RB T.J. Yeldon
- DE A.J. Epenesa
- OL Ike Boettger
- TE Lee Smith
- DT Vernon Butler
One more difference in this year's opener is that, while the Jets remain confident after their 6-2 second-half improvement last season under Gase, Darnold and defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the Bills are being viewed by many football observers as the team to succeed the now Tom Brady-less New England Patriots atop the division.
If the Jets want to slow that momentum and place their own hat in the AFC East ring, there is no better time than today at nearly empty Bills Stadium, beginning with the 1 p.m. opening kickoff.