It seems like every game in the NFL is labeled "a must-win" or "the biggest game of the year." In the case of the Bills' 22-17 win over the Jets on Thursday night, though, these sentiments might have rang true.
Neither team is likely to catch the 8-0 New England Patriots. Of the two, the Jets have the easier remaining schedule with their toughest tests coming in the final two weeks of the season: hosting the Patriots before traveling to Buffalo for the season finale. The Bills have consecutive road games against the Patriots and the Chiefs coming up, and still have to play at Philly in Week 14 before finishing with the Jetsin Week 17. Thus, beating the Jets in New York was a huge step for the Bills.
Here is a look at six things we thought we knew heading into Thursday night ... coupled with what we now know following a big win by Rex Ryan and his Bills:
1) Entering Thursday's AFC East contest, the two teams were, to a large extent, carbon copies of one another, featuring defensive-minded head coaches who are equally committed to the run. Rex Ryan, who had a tenure with the Jets from 2009 to 2014, faced a defense in prime time that was top five in the league in total D. On the contrary, Ryan's Bills came into the game ranked 16th in total defense. Still, the hope was that the Bills could re-establish themselves along the lines of last year's dynamic, fourth-ranked unit, given that the group was healthier and fresh off total beatdown of the Miami Dolphins. I don't know that any performance against the Jets' 11th-ranked offense can be categorized as dominant, but it was pretty darn good.
2) For the Jets, they started the season running the ball as well as any team in the league and led the NFL in defensive takeaways with 10 in their first two games. Since then, they had struggled to pound it on the ground, recording less than 90 yards rushing in each of the previous three games -- including an anemic 29 yards on 28 carries against Jacksonville. (Yes, Jacksonville!) Conversely, on Thursday, the Jets ran the ball well (128 yards on 24 carries) and, at times, overwhelmed the Bills' front seven. But New York didn't complete the rest of the formula, as it was unable to force a single turnover -- all the while, having four turnovers itself.
3) The Bills looked surprisingly dominant in an area where they had previously struggled. Prior to the game, the Bills were 16th in the NFL in takeaways. Last year's Bills finished third in the NFL in total takeaways. Thursday night's group looked the part -- turnover differential ultimately proved to be the difference in the game.
4) In the first half, the Jets put on a clinic on how to contain and pressure Tyrod Taylor. He looked confused and flustered as Gang Green filled the rush lanes -- leaving Taylor little room to run -- and forced him to peek at the pressure rather than finding which receivers were breaking open down the field. Taylor only ran for 12 yards on six carries, but because of takeaways, the Bills were still able to carry out and win with their ideal offensive game plan. As has been the case most of the season, Buffalo kept Taylor under 30 passing attempts while still creating explosive plays down the field in minimal tries. On the year, one in every six attempts for Taylor has resulted in a gain of 20-plus yards (tied with Arizona for best in the NFL coming into Week 10).
5)Ryan Fitzpatrick needed his big receivers (Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker) to step up in this game. They did not -- at least not soon enough. In fact, for a large part of the evening, they were a liability. Marshall's bumbling of a pass led to a turnover to set up the Bills' first score, and Decker dropped a third-down pass that would have given the Jets a much-needed first down inside the 20-yard line. They did rebound to be a factor late in the game with a pair of touchdowns, but it was too little, too late -- especially for a pair of receivers who should be game changers.
6) All the pressure was on Rex Ryan, who has had to hold off a bit of a mutiny by his players. Rex had labeled his group "the most talented defense he had ever been with" and the players believed him. For them to struggle on defense -- while Ryan's former team had one of the league's best units -- caused Bills defenders to question what they were doing. Had the Bills struggled on defense and indeed lost the game, it would have left Rex in a very difficult position, with road trips to Foxborough and Kansas City on tap. Fortunately for him, they didn't.
The tie-breaking procedure of looking at head-to-head games and then division record made this game huge. To get a road win in the division might very well be the difference of making the playoffs and falling short. If Rex can keep his troops playing in this manner, Buffalo will become the team that we see every season that enters the playoffs as the wild-card bunch you don't want to face.