This one will stress-test the Jets.
The Green & White make their annual trip to Western New York to play their old friends the Bills on Sunday. Highmark Stadium and Orchard Park will be chilly and snow-splashed. And the red-white-and-blue-clad fans will be out for blood after the Jets' 20-17 home win some five weeks ago.
As they like to say in the NFL, this game is important because it's the next one. And it's even more important because it's in the division. And Jets head coach Robert Saleh knows how AFC East teams go at it tooth and nail, this year and perhaps well on down the road.
"I feel like we have the best division in football by far," Saleh said this week. "New England, they're not going anywhere, Buffalo and Miami are so talented and very well coached, and so it's a tough division.
"And a team like Buffalo, they're going to be good for a very, very long time, one, because of the coaching, and two, obviously the quarterback. So hopefully it can be a war for a long time."
Can the Jets win this home-and-home battle in the war with Buffalo for the first time since 2016? More important, can they bounce back from the narrow loss at Minnesota with a second stunning win over the Bills to move within a game of the all-important division top spot as the AFC playoff race starts to sizzle? Here are four areas that could determine who prevails in this year's, well, war.
Mike White's History Lesson
The Mike White story has been inspirational for most of the handful of games he's started as the Jets quarterback. But then there was Buffalo last year. It was his last start of '21 and it went from sweet to sour fairly quickly. In the first three quarters, White, trying to get passes to four different Jets WRs, threw four interceptions to four different Bills DBs. If the Green & White hope to avoid the 45-17 loss that resulted, turnovers are an area they will need to keep a tight lid on.
We wish LB Von Miller a speedy recovery from the season-ending ACL tear he sustained on Thanksgiving, but the Buffalo rush isn't the same without him. He was leading the Bills in sacks and in his six career games vs. the Jets, he had at least one sack in five of them. Without Miller, Buffalo's sacks and QB hits are down.
White and his receivers still have to contend with a larcenous secondary led by S Jordan Poyer and recently returned CB Tre'Davious White, but his checkdown work with Ty Johnson at Minnesota and the return of RB Michael Carter to the backfield equation could help heat up the Jets offense.
"We'll have our hands full," Buffalo DC Leslie Frazier said of White and friends, "trying to contain him and deal with some of the many factors they have in their offense."
The Josh Allen Dichotomy
Allen, that Buffalo QB Saleh mentioned, continues to be one of the game's most dangerous young signal-callers. With his passing and rushing skills in full force, he's amassed 3,987 total yards, second-most in the NFL behind only KC's Patrick Mahomes. At the moment he pilots the AFC's No. 1 team with the NFL's No. 2 offense and No. 1 third-down unit. And he's 5-3 for his career vs. the Jets.
But Allen has an 80.8 passer rating in those eight Jets games, not a high number, and the Green & White toppled him at MetLife. Part of that was the Jets' 174-yard rushing attack. Part was Allen's Achilles heel, a few giveaways of his own, as the Jets coerced him into two interceptions and two strip sacks in that game. His 15 individual turnovers are second-most in the NFL this year and his 49 TOs since 2020 lead the league.
So the Jets' defensive task remains the same as it's been: Respect the QB, know he's going to run for some yards, throw to Stefon Diggs and others for more yards. But keep the pressure on up front and keep the coverage tight on the back end, and the visitors could get the results they seek.
Can the Jets hold Allen in check again in his home office? "Really hard to duplicate," Saleh said.
Green & White Red Zone Conundrum
The Jets' performance inside Minnesota's 20-yard line was a puzzle. They had one touchdown — White's 1-yard fourth-down keeper — plus three Greg Zuerlein field goals, in six red zone forays, all in the second half.
Normally, six trips to the RZ turn out fairly well no matter how many TDs a team scores. In franchise history (since the Titans began in 1960), the Jets are 57-9-1 (85.8%) in 68 games of six-plus red zone drives. That includes a 4-2 mark in 1-for-6 games.
But the Jets know the NFL's < 20 higher math. Saleh says: "Can't win the game just kicking field goals." WR Garrett Wilson: "Those threes need to turn into sixes."
Of those 68 games with 6-plus red zone drives since 1960, the Jets' 16.7% RZ TD rate at the Vikings was tied for the lowest conversion rate in their history with those five other 1-for-6 games. On the other hand, Minnesota's offense had three TDs in its three trips inside the Jets red zone.
That's an imbalance that, if repeated, will likely lead to a loss at Buffalo. The Bills' red zone TD defense, in particular, is ranked third in the NFL.
See the top practice images leading up to the Week 14 matchup against the Bills.
Those Highmark Intangibles
The Bills, after their Thursday night win at New England, have been resting up, changing up and gearing up for 10 days to host the Jets, who meanwhile are in the middle of a tough two-game roadtrip. Then there were four Jets who didn't practice Wednesday due to illness. Could that be a lingering factor in this game?
But other elements still favor the Jets. Even though they couldn't punch in a touchdown despite two late red zone visits at Minnesota, they still outscored the Vikes, 10-7, in the fourth quarter and increased their NFL-leading fourth-quarter point margin to plus-54. Minny was the former No. 2, now third behind Dallas after the Cowboys' 33-0 fourth-quarter fandango vs. the Colts. The Bills in the fourth quarter? Plus-4, 14th in the league.
Both the Jets and Bills have been outstanding in their two-minute drills, first and second halves. San Francisco is No. 1 in the NFL in two-minute point margin at plus-41. The Jets are second at plus-40, the Bills third at plus-33. Too soon to tell, but perhaps this metric tells us is that the team with the ball in the last two minutes Sunday will win. Maybe.