Any chance at finding a favorite in the AFC East went out the window with the Jets' 26-17 win over the Bills on Sunday. Just two weeks after holding first place with a 5-1 record, the Bills find themselves in a three-way tie with the Jets and Patriots. The Dolphins sit just one game back at 4-4, and according to the Football Outsiders' advanced ratings for DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average), Miami might actually be the best team of the bunch. Sunday's Jets-Bills contest showed that the eventual champion of the AFC East may be the team that best stays out of its own way.
This game was a highlight reel of the unfortunate. Two interceptions returned for touchdowns, two missed field goals, a kickoff out of bounds, two penalties for 12 men on the field, a fumbled snap and a player left completely open in the end zone. Even NFL Films would struggle to turn this game into a clash of titans.
This game, however, was a good indicator of why the Jets are once again a playoff contender. Despite their high-profile acquisition of Brett Favre, it is the other newly acquired Pro Bowl veterans who have them on the right track. Defensive tackle Kris Jenkins dominated the center of the line, while offensive guard Alan Faneca spearheaded a potent rushing attack.
The elimination of Buffalo's running attack was the key to the game. The Bills prefer to pound the ball and get quarterback Trent Edwards into manageable situations. On Sunday, they were incapable of running the ball. Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson combined for 31 yards on 16 carries. The matchup of New York's run defense against Buffalo's run offense was no match at all. The Jets have the ninth-best run defense in football, according to the DVOA ratings; the Bills have the seventh-worst rushing offense.
Jenkins was everywhere, collapsing the line and forcing Bills runners to bounce outside. The oversized defensive tackle is one of the best talents in football, and the Jets did an excellent job of getting him for third- and fifth-round picks. He is an enormous upgrade over the departed Dewayne Robertson. The Jets ranked 30th in run defense with Robertson. On Sunday, the Jets were without run-stuffer David Harris, out with a groin injury, and they still dominated.
While the Jets flummoxed Buffalo's rushing offense, their own run offense kicked into gear in the second half to put a close game out of reach. The Jets signed Faneca to fill in between their young tandem of left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold. So far, the results have been impressive. They ranked 28th in run offense last year and have improved to 10th this year. In Football Outsiders' adjusted line yards, a stat that measures the effectiveness of an offensive line, the Jets have improved from 21st in 2007 to fourth this season.
The Jets took over with 10:53 left in the fourth quarter and a six-point lead (following the interception return for a touchdown). They embarked on a 13-play drive with eight runs and five passes that took over 10 minutes off of the clock. For the game, Thomas Jones totaled 69 yards on 12 carries and, not counting quarterback carries, the team totaled 98 yards on 22 carries.
The running game has picked up the slack for what is undoubtedly a disappointing contribution from Favre. The all-time leader in just about every QB stat has reverted to the bad habits that plagued him in 2005 and 2006. Rather than protect the football, Favre is throwing interceptions at an alarming rate. He leads the league in interceptions with 12 after throwing only 15 all last season. The pick-six to Jabari Greer was an incredibly poor decision considering the game situation.
Edwards made an equally costly mistake, but for the season he has played at a higher level than Favre. On Sunday, however, Edwards was confused and ineffective. The key change was an injury to receiver Josh Reed. The Bills rely largely on the excellent Lee Evans, but without Reed, the Jets consistently doubled Evans. Edwards faced some pressure and was sacked five times (twice by Jenkins), but a number of those sacks were coverage sacks. Receivers Roscoe Parrish and James Hardy have yet to develop as consistent options, and the Bills will miss Reed dearly as he recovers from lower leg injuries.
The end result is that these two teams will battle with New England and Miami down to the wire for the AFC East crown. The Bills travel to New England this Sunday in a critical matchup, while the Jets host St. Louis before their own trip to Foxborough. The Bills, Jets and Patriots are all roughly equivalent teams this year, so the breaks of the game will sort out this mess of mediocrity. If the Jets are able to sneak into the playoffs, remember that their key offseason acquisitions were on the offensive and defensive line, and not the more famous quarterback.
Ned Macey is an analyst for Football Outsiders.