Bills could SCREW UP Jets' playoff hopes

With three games left, the Jets were a game behind the first-place Dolphins and half a game behind the Patriots. Most surprising was that New York was competing for the division title at all -- considering the sudden departure of Al Groh for Virginia last season, Herman Edwards' hiring, plus hiring a mostly new staff and installing new offensive and defensive systems.

 

To their credit, the Jets never really allowed themselves to become distracted. New York has a veteran group that does not make many mistakes. It led the league with a plus-23 turnover differential. That tells you the Jets are a team that is careful and methodical in how it goes about its football.

 

Jets on offense

New York is primarily a two-back, two-wide receiver, one-tight end team with fullback Richie Anderson catching passes and blocking for Curtis Martin.

Everyone knows quarterback Vinny Testaverde's mobility is limited. But Testaverde has been receiving excellent protection this season. The Jets had given up just 16 sacks, second-fewest in the NFL.

The biggest surprise about Testaverde this year was that he had dramatically cut the numbers of interceptions he had thrown -- from 25 last season to eight. He had only thrown 12 touchdown passes, but the fact that he's not making as many mental errors under offensive coordinator Paul Hackett meant the Jets have been in most of their ball games at the end. Only one of their five losses was by more than two points.

Second-year wide receiver Laveranues Coles led the team with 43 catches for 606 yards and six touchdowns. Speed demon Coles offers a nice complement to the sure-handed Wayne Chrebet. He was second among the Jets with 39 catches for 511 yards, but only one touchdown, and on a pace for his lowest output since 1999. That year, Chrebet missed five games because of injury. Rookie wide receiver Santana Moss missed two December games because of a strained quadriceps muscle, but Kevin Swayne stepped in and caught four third-down passes for first downs. Testaverde threw to Swayne with Coles and Chrebet drawing double coverage.

Tight end Anthony Becht has emerged as one of the Jets' more valued weapons, especially near the goal line. He had scored four touchdowns, including one against the Bills last time. Raion Hill and Keith Newman will have to watch Becht closely. Another thing for the Bills to watch is second tight end James Dearth, who was more of a pass-catching threat vs. the Bengals Dec. 16 than Becht was.

Key matchup: Bills linebackers vs. Jets running back Curtis Martin. The linebackers are the players who must stop Martin, New York's best offensive weapon. Martin had 135 yards rushing and two touchdowns vs. Buffalo in the first meeting. If he does that well again, it would be a bad day for Buffalo.

The way to win: Get off the field on third downs. New York has made a living at being careful with the football this season, so Buffalo's single hope is to defend the sticks on third downs, forcing the Jets to punt at every opportunity.

 

Offensive player to watch

RB 28 Curtis Martin

Ht.: 5'11"                 Wt.: 205

Curtis Martin is having his usual 1,000-yard season. He was the NFL's No. 2 rusher with 1,218 yards, and also had 39 catches for 218 yards. Martin had scored 10 rushing touchdowns, tied for second in the league. But he hadn't had a 100-yard rushing game, nor had he scored any touchdowns, since New York beat Kansas City 27-7 Nov. 11. However, New York had played some tough defensive teams during that time -- Pittsburgh, Miami, Cincinnati – the Nos. 1, 3 and 10 defenses in the league. Martin, still the focal point of New York's offense, could be expected to do better against Buffalo's 29th-ranked rushing defense. He had his best game against the Bills since 1995 when the teams met Oct. 7.

 

Jets on defense

The Jets defense starts with the linebackers: Marvin Jones in the middle, Mo Lewis on the strong side and James Farrior on the weak side. They are the Jets' top three tacklers.

But New York's defensive improvement over the course of the season has resulted from stronger play by their linemen. Defensive ends Shaun Ellis and John Abraham, each in his second year, have developed into quite a tandem, getting up field consistently to apply pressure on the quarterback.

Sometimes Abraham lines up as a stand-up linebacker, giving former Bills defensive coordinator Ted Cottrell the 3-4 look he used during his coaching career in Buffalo.

The Jets have been vulnerable against the run this season, giving up an average of 131.5 yards on the ground, fourth-worst in the NFL. That is surprising, considering that the linebackers are so good. But a huge chunk of that number had to do with the Rams' rushing for 234 yards behind Trung Canidate's NFC-season-high 195-yard day Oct. 21. Since then, New York has not allowed a 100-yard rusher. Buffalo had a good day rushing the football against the Jets -- totaling a team season-high 162 yards, with rookie Travis Henry picking up 113 yards, also his season best.

Cottrell will blitz his linebackers a lot more than he did when he was with the Bills. But Buffalo's offensive line, having stayed intact Dec. 9 and Dec. 16, should be better than it was in October, when New York took advantage of the Bills with two fumble recoveries for touchdowns.

Aaron Glenn, the anchor of the Jets' secondary, had missed three games through Dec. 16 because of a sprained knee. He may not be back against Buffalo, meaning that nickel back Ray Mickens would start. Free safety Damien Robinson hasn't been as good as in the past, but he turned his play up a notch to collect nine tackles and an interception vs. the Bengals Dec. 16.

Key matchup: Bills running backs vs. Jets weakside linebacker James Farrior. He has been having the best year of his career. He has had a sense for the ball as the Jets' leading tackler, plus he has been good in pass coverage. He also had forced three fumbles, including two against the Bills. If Henry can't play because of a sprained knee, Shawn Bryson and Sammy Morris could split time

The way to win: Protect the football. The Jets have been very opportunistic in their takeaways. They even have relied on their defense to win games when the offense is sputtering, as they did in Miami last month. Buffalo cannot afford interceptions or fumbles, which could spell doom again.

 

Defensive player to watch

DE 94 John Abraham

Ht.: 6'4"                  Wt.: 256

John Abraham had 11 sacks, though he was held sackless against Buffalo Oct. 7. Abraham has speed, balance and flexibility. He can initially get an offensive tackle out of position by using that speed, then further neutralize the blocker by maintaining his balance and stretching his body to get his hands on the passer from around the corner. Abraham usually plays on the right side, but sometimes he'll switch with Shaun Ellis and play left end to give New York a different look. Abraham shows excellent pursuit on plays that a


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