Just two months ago, this one seemed to be a lead-pipe cinch.
Upon unfurling the 2011 schedule and trying to ascertain where successes would come, fans of the New York Jets surely looked ahead to a Nov. 6 matchup in Orchard Park, NY and a trip to meet the 4-12 Buffalo Bills of last season as an automatic source of mid-year revelry.
The optimism was warranted based on five Jets wins in the series' last six games, including a pair of routs last season in which the transplanted New Yorkers outscored the still-remaining New Yorkers by 38-14 and 38-7 counts -- an overall 76-21 tally for eight quarters.
But this year, it seems reality has changed.
Rather than the 0-4 and 4-11 patsies that Gang Green encountered those last two times around, the second year of the Chan Gailey experience in Buffalo has taken a stunning turn for the competitive, resulting in five wins in seven games and a share of first place of the AFC East with the perennially-prolific New England Patriots.
In fact, thanks to a come-from-behind home win over New England on Sept. 25, the Bills actually enter Week 9 as rightful owners of the top spot in the division.
They haven't been 5-2 since 2008 and haven't ended a year above .500 since 2004.
Buffalo, which also hasn't opened with five home wins since 1995, comes in after a 23-0 smothering of Washington last week in Toronto, notching its first shutout since 2006 and holding a Mike Shanahan-coached team off the scoreboard for the first time in his 18 NFL seasons.
The Bills registered nine sacks and allowed the Redskins 178 total yards, far off from a 385.9 yards-per-game season average and miles away from the 400-plus it had allowed in five straight games prior to last week.
One game before, Buffalo was gashed for 414 yards in a 27-24 loss to the New York Giants.
"You hope that your team gains confidence from that, and that your defense sees how well they can play," Gailey said. "It should create more confidence."
With the Jets now at 4-3, the outspoken boss is repackaging his bravado.
"Would we like to have had a better record? Absolutely, we would've, but we don't," Ryan said. "We're 4-3, but we have it right in front of us. The teams you have to beat are right in front of us, so we'll know. These next few weeks are going to be critical for us."
New York alternates home and away games after returning from Buffalo, hosting New England before seeing Denver, Buffalo, Washington, Kansas City, Philadelphia, the Giants and Miami through the end of the season, which Ryan fully expects to augment with a third straight playoff berth.
The Jets defeated San Diego, 27-21, on Oct. 23 before last week's bye. They're 0-2 coming off bye weeks in Ryan's tenure.
"We have to do something about that trend," Ryan said. "We need to win this week."
Buffalo is 4-0 in home games this season and averages an AFC-best 30.1 points per game in those contests.
The Bills lead the all-time regular season series with the Jets by a 53-47 count, but New York has won three straight and five of the last six bouts between the divisional foes and as previously mentioned, handed Buffalo a pair of lopsided defeats in last year's season sweep. The Bills' lone victory over that six-game stretch took place at the Meadowlands in 2009, a 16-13 overtime verdict in which Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez threw five interceptions. New York has bested Buffalo three consecutive times as the visitor as well, including a 19-13 decision at Toronto's Rogers Centre in 2009.
Buffalo won the only postseason matchup between the franchises, a 31-27 triumph at Shea Stadium in a 1981 AFC First-Round playoff.
Gailey is 0-3 against the Jets for his career, which includes a loss while in charge of the Dallas Cowboys in 1999. Ryan is 3-1 lifetime versus Buffalo and won each of his two head-to-head meetings with Gailey, both of which occurred last season.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
In his past three games this season, Sanchez has completed 48-of-84 passes (57.1 percent) for 540 yards with six touchdowns, one interception and a 95.3 passer rating. Running back Shonn Greene had a season-high 112 rushing yards against San Diego, and totaled 117 yards in last year's win at Buffalo. Fellow running back LaDainian Tomlinson went for 133 yards on 19 attempts (7.0 average) with two rush touchdowns in that contest and became the fourth running back in NFL history with 600 receptions, joining Larry Centers (827), Marshall Faulk (767) and Keith Byars (610), in the San Diego game. Wide receiver Plaxico Burress tied a career-best with three touchdown catches in the win over the Chargers, while tight end Dustin Keller tied a career-high with two touchdown catches in New York's rout at Buffalo last season. Kick returner Joe McKnight leads the NFL with a 40.0 yard average.
On defense, the Bills lead the NFL with 14 interceptions and safety George Wilson (4 INT) needs one pick to surpass his career-best of four in 2009. Fellow safety Jairus Byrd, meanwhile, has three interceptions in four career games against the Jets. Rookie lineman Marcell Dareus, the No. 3 overall pick in last April's draft, had a career-best 2 1/2 sacks last week. Linebacker Nick Barnett has 58 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and two interceptions in seven games.
Statistically, the Jets on offense are 11th in scoring (24.6 ppg), but just 29th in total yards (300.1 ypg), 22nd in passing yards (207.7 ypg) and 28th in rushing yards (92.4). Buffalo is 12th in the league in scoring defense (21.0), 26th in total yards allowed (385.9 ypg), 24th in pass defense (265.9 ypg) and 20th against the run (120.0 ypg).
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick aims for a fourth straight game with a 70- plus completion percentage, following up on outings with rates of 77.8, 70 and 77.8 percent. He also needs two touchdown passes to surpass Doug Flutie (47) for the fifth-most in club history and has a completion of 40-plus yards in five consecutive games. Running back Fred Jackson aims for a fourth consecutive game with 100-plus rushing yards after games of 111, 121 and 120. The Bills are 10-2 when Jackson has 100-plus yards on the ground, and he ranks second in the NFL with 153.4 yards from scrimmage per game, for a total of 1,074. Jackson is also tied with Chicago's Matt Fore for the league lead tied with nine rushes of 20-plus yards. Tight end Scott Chandler leads all NFL players at his position with six touchdown catches in 2011.
For the Jets, cornerback Darrelle Revis has three interceptions in his past two games and has four career picks against the Bills, tied with Miami for his most against any opponent. Linebacker Aaron Maybin looks for a third consecutive game with a sack. He was selected No. 11 overall in the 2009 NFL Draft by the Bills and spent two seasons in Buffalo before being released in August. Rookie end Muhammad Wilkerson has 17 tackles and a sack in seven games.
By the numbers, Buffalo's 30.1 points per game is third-best in the league, and it is 10th in total yards (380.1 ypg), 13th in passing yards (239.6 ypg) and fifth in rushing yards (140.6 ypg). The New York defense is 14th in points allowed (21.7 ppg), eighth in total yards allowed (323.6 ypg), seventh in pass defense (196.7 ypg) and just 25th against the run (126.9 ypg).
KEYS TO THE GAME
The stagnant Jets' offense could get itself going against a statistically- sluggish Buffalo defense, which is just 26th in the league with an average of 385.9 yards per game allowed.
Buffalo's Fitzpatrick has a 97.8 passer rating through seven games to rank sixth in the league, but he's managed just a 62.0 mark in four career games against New York. He'll have to maintain his strong level of play this season for the Bills to have their best opportunity.
New York's Greene ran for 112 yards against the Chargers, his most since posting 117 against the Bills in the 2010 finale. The Jets have averaged 279 rush yards in the last four games of the series, and would have a good chance of winning if they can get the ground game going again.
The Bills have surprised, but how much of their success is legit? Their only meeting with a top-10 defense ended in defeat, while three of their five wins came against units ranked 22nd, 25th and 32nd. If the Jets' victory over San Diego was evidence of a turned corner, expect their edge in matchups to trump the Bills' standings advantage.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 24, Bills 14