A column by CHUCK POLLOCK
For Bills and Jets, this is a statement game.
With nearly eight months to get over the shellshock of that 27-10 embarrassment the Bengals hung on the Bills in January at Highmark Stadium in the second round of the NFL playoffs, Buffalo begins its new season, Monday night at Metlife Stadium against the Jets.
It’s a game that has generated tremendous national interest and millions of dollars in legal wagers, with the Bills favored by 2½. The oddity is, one of the biggest games of the early season won’t be shown in the home market as New York’s ABC and ESPN TV outlets are blacked out due to the ongoing contentious contact issue between Spectrum and Disney.
Fortunately, the upstate ABC stations will carry the game including Buffalo’s WKBW-TV and Rochester’s WHAM.
What makes this game so fascinating is that the AFC East has quietly become the conference’s toughest division and, oddly, the list of contenders doesn’t even include once-dominant New England.
All you need to know is that Buffalo split with both the Dolphins and Jets in the regular season, then, in the playoffs behind second-string quarterback, Skylar Thompson, Miami’s final-possession upset bid was foiled by two untimely penalties at midfield. Buffalo held on 34-31 in Orchard Park.
The key “add” for the Jets, of course, is enigmatic quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who is counting down to his 40th birthday. Still Rodgers should be fine as long as he stays interested: read the Jets are winning. If they don’t, he’ll likely revert to his late Green Bay days when he blamed everybody but himself and held the team hostage in the process.
The front office also got Rodgers some help in the form of running back Dalvin Cook, a member of the NFL elite only two years ago, plus the return of Breece Hall, whose impressive rookie season was ended by a knee injury, but is back this season to give the Jets an impressive 1-2 punch on the ground.
COME MONDAY night, the Bills and Jets will play a statement game almost out of proportion to a season opener.
Depending on the publication, the Dolphins, Bills or Jets are variously favored to win the AFC East.
Indeed, Peter King, one of the country’s most respected NFL writers, picks the Jets to win the division, but speculates the Bills to be seeded fifth in the conference and rally to win the AFC Championship Game over Kansas City, only to lose to the Eagles in the Super Bowl.
From the time the NFL schedule was released, I predicted Buffalo was going to go 10-7.
Several friends laughed at that suggestion, some predicting Buffalo was going to go 14-3, one even asked, “You tell me how the Bills lose seven games?”
OK, here’s how. Buffalo’s schedule is brutal, 10 of 17 games are against 2022 playoff teams. Let’s start with the division. As mentioned above, last year the Bills split with both the Dolphins and Jets and each improved more than Buffalo in the off-season. And though New York didn’t make the playoffs, this year the Jets are a popular pick to win the AFC East.
Then, there are five brutal road games: both Super Bowl teams — Kansas City and Philadelphia — plus Cincinnati, which destroyed the Bills in last January’s playoff game at Highmark Stadium, the ascending Chargers in Los Angeles plus impressive Jacksonville at London.
Even home meetings with the Giants and Raiders won’t be easy.
FINALLY, there are the Bills’ own flaws.
Let’s start at the top.
Coach Sean McDermott, who hardly ranks in the top-half of NFL coaches in game-day acumen given his serial wasting of timeouts, dubious record in challenges and flawed decision-making, has added a new job.
This season he’ll also be calling the defensive signals.
Clearly he blamed coordinator Leslie Frazier for the meltdown against the Bengals in the playoffs, an embarrassment in which McDermott’s fingerprints were everywhere, including the fact his offense scored only 10 points.
But suddenly, Frazier, at age 64, who was hoping for another NFL head-coaching job, decided — wink, wink! — to step away from being defensive coordinator of a Super Bowl contender and contemplate his future.
And if you believe that, I’ve got a great deal for you on some desert property in Arizona.
After a week of contemplation, Dermott decided — wait for it — the best candidate for defensive coordinator … WAS HIM.
This just in, Sean, NFL head coach and unit coordinator are full-time jobs … separately.
This was all about ego and McDermott admitted as much when talking to the media Wednesday saying how much, even in his overall leadership role, he missed being in with the defensive players. Clearly he made the decision to push the classy Frazier aside and take over the unit of his pedigree.
Still, it comes off as self-serving and even McDermott conceded he was torn between both roles and the communications involved during the meaningless preseason games.
On game day, NFL head coaches make thousands of decisions over the span of three hours, add on calling the defensive signals to an already stress-filled responsibility and see how that works out.
For McDermott’s sake, I hope this seemingly ill-considered plan survives, but the optics and evidence aren’t on his side.
If you’re wondering, Las Vegas has set the following over/under odds on wins in the AFC East for this season: Buffalo 10.5, the Dolphins and Jets both 9.5 and Patriots 7.5.
For the record, I’m sticking with 10-7.
As for Monday night, Buffalo has one major onfield flaw, middle linebacker. With Tremaine Edmunds lost to Chicago in free agency, his job fell to a quartet of hopefuls. But that group was halved when A.J. Klein was waived and Baylon Spector was put on injured reserve.
Thus, against the Jets, Terrell Bernard, who didn’t play a down in an exhibition games due to injury, will start, with journeyman Tyrel Dodson, who underwhelmed in preseason, in reserve.
Rodgers can be a weird guy, but nobody has ever questioned his ability to read defenses. His eyes figure to light up as he contemplates ways to mismatch Buffalo’s vulnerable middle linebacker position.
Jets 24, Bills 20
(Chuck Pollock, a Wellsville Sun senior sports columnist, can be reached at email@example.com.)
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