If nothing else at all in 2012, the New York Jets will provide a interesting litmus test for the NFL...exactly how much does the preseason mean?
Head coach Rex Ryan and Co. were the target of critique, criticism and downright catcalling during an 0-4 August run in which the regular defense was particularly effective, but the first-string offense was awful.
The unit failed to reach the end zone once in the three games it appeared, and the Jets as a whole didn't score a touchdown until the reserves took the field in a game-four walk-through against the Philadelphia Eagles.
But put it all together and Ryan is still, well...Ryan.
"I truly feel that this will be the best team that I've had since I became head coach of the Jets," he said, while falling short of the Super Bowl guarantees he's delivered periodically prior to his first three seasons at the helm.
"All that work that you've done, all the work that the players have done, the lifting and all the meetings and things, it's for this," said Ryan in reference to New York's season opener against the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium. "It's not to win a preseason game. It's to be at your very best when the regular season starts."
New York's offense stumbled down the stretch in 2011 as an 8-5 start devolved to an 8-8 finish and marked the first time in quarterback Mark Sanchez's three seasons that the Jets failed to reach the AFC Championship Game.
The ex-USC starter posted a 60.3 passer rating and threw seven of his 18 interceptions in the final stretch, which actually ended with Sanchez setting career-bests in completions (303), passing yards (3,474), touchdown passes (26) and quarterback rating (78.2).
And since the season-ending defeat in Miami, he's been joined on the roster by fellow quarterback Tim Tebow, who's subsequently been the source of a media frenzy in anticipation of a signal-calling controversy the Jets insist won't occur.
Also new to the fold is offensive coordinator Tony Sparano, the former Dolphins head coach who comes over from Miami after authoring significant success with Wildcat schemes.
Adding to the mystery is the lack of definition of exactly what role Tebow, who led Denver to an AFC West title and a playoff win last season, will play.
"As much as people are trying to make it a quarterback controversy, it's not," Ryan said. "Mark is our starting quarterback, and Tim is an excellent football player. I guess we never appeased whoever by not putting [Tebow] out there.
"If that added to it, that wasn't our intent. Our intent was there's no sense showing [the Wildcat] right now in the preseason, just like I'm sure a lot of teams are saving specific things for their openers. We're not different than a lot of teams doing that."
Back at wide receiver is Santonio Holmes, who had a much-publicized rift with Sanchez and teammates as last season disintegrated. He made just one catch in limited preseason action.
"We'll find out Sunday," Holmes said when asked how the offense will perform. "We'll find out just how much we've been putting together throughout the offseason. I think it's going to be pretty exciting for us."
As for the Jets' defense, it's at least a known - and confident - quantity.
"We plan to be the best," end Mike DeVito said. "It doesn't matter what anybody else is doing. We plan to be the best defense. We plan to not let up scores and we plan to go out there and shut down offenses. That's our deal, so nothing else matters. Not what anyone says or does. It's all about what we're doing."
The Bills plan on a similar defense-first approach to end a playoff drought that stretches back to the "Music City Miracle" loss to Tennessee in January of 2000.
Buffalo was an early factor while winning five of seven games to begin 2011, but dropped a 27-11 home decision to the Jets the following week and won just once the rest of the way to finish 6-10.
In the offseason, they added defensive ends Mario Williams and Mark Anderson to boost a group that surrendered 5,938 total yards and registered just 29 sacks.
The Bills, under the leadership of head coach Chan Gailey, will also switch to a 4-3 scheme in 2012.
"This is where we make the money," said defensive tackle Marcell Dareus, who had 5 1/2 sacks as a rookie last season. "This is what they pay us the big bucks for. They made a great investment on the front four, and I'm pretty sure we won't disappoint them."
The Bills go again with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick to lead the offense after establishing 2011 career-bests in passing yards (3,832), touchdown passes (24) and completion percentage (62.0), but threw 23 interceptions.
He slumped badly after the Bills' hot start and earning a lucrative contract extension, throwing 16 interceptions and racking up a a 66.5 passer rating in the final nine games.
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson also returns after two straight 1,000-yard seasons and is billed by some as the personal nemesis of Jets cornerback Darrelle Revis after catching 11 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown - the only one scored on Revis last season - against the Jets in 2011.
"It's the competition, I love it," said Johnson about Sunday's matchup. "With [Revis] being arguably one of the best cornerbacks in the league, it's an opportunity to put myself out there and let the world know that Stevie Johnson is a player in this league. It's a competition thing. I've been fortunate to get a few passes on him.
"I'm working on getting the "W", though."
Bills lead 53-49
Streak: Jets have won last five meetings 2011 Meetings: Jets 27, Bills 11 (Nov. 6 at Buffalo) Jets 28, Bills 24 (Nov. 27 at New York)
Bills HC Chan Gailey vs. Jets: 0-5 overall, 0-4 with Bills Jets HC Rex Ryan vs. Bills: 5-1 Gailey vs. Ryan Head-to-Head: Ryan leads, 4-0
Notes: Jets have won seven of eight matchups with Buffalo over the last four seasons, with the Bills' lone victory a 16-13 road overtime triumph in 2009 in which a then-rookie Sanchez threw five interceptions. Gailey's first loss against New York came in 1999 while then the head coach of Dallas. Buffalo took the only postseason clash between the divisional foes to date, scoring a 31-27 victory at Shea Stadium in a 1981 AFC First Round Playoff.
BY THE NUMBERS
2011 Offensive Team Rankings
Buffalo: 14th overall (351.5 ypg), 13th rushing (120.1 ypg), 15th passing (231.4 ypg), 14th scoring (23.3 ppg)
N.Y. Jets: 25th overall (311.8 ypg), 22nd rushing (105.8 ypg), 21st passing (206.1 ypg), 12th scoring (23.6 ppg)
2011 Defensive Team Rankings
Buffalo: 26th overall (371.1 ypg), 28th rushing (139.0 ypg), 19th passing (232.1 ypg), 30th scoring (27.1 ppg)
N.Y. Jets: 5th overall (312.1 ypg), 13th rushing (111.1 ypg), 5th passing (201.0 ypg), 20th scoring (22.7 ppg)
2011 Turnover Margin
Buffalo: +1 (31 takeaways, 30 giveaways) N.Y. Jets: -3 (31 takeaways, 34 giveaways)
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (offense)
Buffalo: 52.8 percent (53 possessions, 28 TD, 15 FG) -- 11th overall N.Y. Jets: 65.5 percent (55 possessions, 36 TD, 11 FG) -- 1st overall
2011 Red Zone Touchdown Percentage (defense)
Buffalo: 64.4 percent (59 possessions, 38 TD, 14 FG) -- 32nd overall N.Y. Jets: 52.3 percent (44 possessions, 23 TD, 16 FG) -- 16th overall
WHEN THE BILLS HAVE THE BALL
The most lingering memories of the Bills' offense against the Jets defense last season involved Johnson (76 receptions, 1004, 7 TD in 2011), who was the lone wideout to catch a touchdown pass against Revis over the 16-game schedule. However, he also dropped what would have been a decisive scoring catch in a four-point loss at New York at MetLife Stadium. From top to bottom, the Bills personnel is largely the same, with Fitzpatrick (24 TD, 23 INT) back after he threw for 3,832 yards to join Drew Bledsoe (4,359, 2002) and Hall of Famer Jim Kelly (3,844, 1991) as the only Bills quarterbacks to reach 3,800 passing yards in a single season. He also had a career-best with 24 touchdown passes. Fitzpatrick completed 26-of-39 throws (66.7 percent) for 264 yards, three touchdowns and a 111.5 rating in Buffalo's last meeting with the Jets back in November. Running backs Fred Jackson (934 rushing yards, 6 TD, 39 receptions) and C.J. Spiller (561 rushing yards, 39 receptions, 6 total TD), who combined for 1,495 rushing yards in 2011, are the main ground options. A second option behind Johnson at wideout is Donald Jones (23 receptions, 1 TD), who enters his third NFL season after catching 41 passes and scoring twice in his initial two. Tight end Scott Chandler (38 receptions, 6 TD) tied Pete Metzelaars (1992) and Jay Riemersma (1998) for the most touchdown catches by a tight end in a single season in the team's history last year.
For the Jets, all preseason reviews indicate a return to the defensive prowess of coordinator Mike Pettine's initial two seasons on the job. Safeties LaRon Landry (48 tackles, 1.5 sacks with Redskins) and Yeremiah Bell (107 tackles, 2 sacks, 1 INT with Dolphins) were brought in during the offseason and end Quinton Coples was the 16th overall draft pick after two straight all-ACC seasons at North Carolina. He's earned high praise for his performance over the four preseason games. Linebacker Aaron Maybin was selected No. 11 overall by the Bills in the 2009 NFL Draft and resurrected his career last season with the Jets, leading the team with six sacks.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Ryan and everyone else associated with the Jets have promised a return to the "ground-and-pound" offensive attack that helped the team to consecutive AFC Championship Game appearances after the 2009 and 2010 seasons. New York got away from that philosophy and was more pass-heavy in 2011, then suffered when Sanchez (3474 passing yards, 26 TD, 18 INT) sputtered down the stretch. Of course, the million-dollar question in training camp - and everywhere else - has been how much the Jets will use new backup Tebow (660 rushing yards, 6 TD with Broncos) in the mix created by new offensive coordinator Sparano, who leaned heavily on the Wildcat scheme in his days with the Dolphins. Running back Shonn Greene comes off a career-best 1,054 yards and six touchdowns last season and enters this year as the feature back. Among the receivers, tight end Dustin Keller tweaked a hamstring in a preseason game but is expected back for the opener, and recorded a team-high 65 catches and 815 receiving yards last season. Among the wideouts, the veteran Holmes (51 receptions, 8 TD) made nice with his teammates after a much-publicized rift in the 2011 finale at Miami. He's scored in three straight games against the Bills. Up front, the Jets replaced balky right tackle Wayne Hunter with Austin Howard and recently traded for Jason Smith, a former No. 2 overall pick with St. Louis.
Howard's immediate challenge will be fending off a suddenly ferocious Bills pass rush that includes free-agent signees Williams (11 tackles, 5 sacks with Texans) and Anderson (29 tackles, 10 sacks with Patriots). Williams had two sacks in his last game against the Jets, which came while with Houston in November of 2010. Anderson, drafted by the Chicago Bears in 2006, has 35 1/2 career sacks in 93 games with three teams. In the backfield, safety George Wilson (106 tackles) tied a career-high with four interceptions last season and fellow safety Jairus Byrd (75 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INT) has picked off four passes in six career games against the Jets. Also, cornerback Stephon Gilmore makes his professional debut after he was selected 10th overall in April's draft.
The overwhelming majority of playmakers on either team are on the defensive side of the ball, which will most likely lead to a competitive game in which limiting mistakes is at a premium. How well Howard or Smith are able to deal with Williams and Anderson will determine the mistake quotient for Sanchez, who tends to make them in bunches and at inconvenient moments. If the right tackle position is stable, it'll free the quarterback up for the quick-hitting passes he thrives on. Meanwhile, it's a litmus test for Pettine's New York defense that smothered the Bills in the teams' initial meeting last season in Buffalo. Unless Johnson can break out with a difference-making big play or two against Revis, the Jets seem more likely to turn a turnover into decisive points in their home opener.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 20, Bills 14