Rest or rust?
The playoff-bound New York Jets (11-5) faced that age-old question in their 100th all-time meeting with the last-place Buffalo Bills (4-12) at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday.
Some teams opt for rest and avoiding potential injuries. Others prefer to throw that caution to the wind, in favor of playing their regulars and remaining sharp for the postseason. History suggests either option can be right.
With only a slim chance of moving up from a six seed to a five seed in the AFC playoffs, the Jets chose to rest many of their regulars.
Whether or not that was the right move remains to be seen in next week’s wild-card playoff round, but it certainly didn’t matter against Buffalo, as Gang Green Lite scored the first 17 points, and the final 21 points, to bury the Bills, 38-7, at the New Meadowlands Stadium on Sunday.
Ironically, it was the Indianapolis Colts – the Jets’ playoff opponent next week – who rested players with a perfect season on the line last year, allowing the Jets to win their way into the playoffs, before eventually losing in Indianapolis in last season’s AFC title game.
The Colts’ last-second win over Tennessee, coupled with Kansas City’s loss to Oakland on Sunday, moved Indianapolis (10-6) up to the three seed, and into a playoff rematch with New York.
Benching several key starters for most or all of Sunday’s game against the Bills, the Jets dominated on both sides of the ball to win for just the second time in five games, while reaching eleven regular season wins for the first time in a dozen years.
New York’s offense got three touchdowns from backup quarterbacks Mark Brunell and Kellen Clemens, and a career-high 158 rushing yards from backup, rookie running back Joe McKnight.
Meanwhile, the Bills couldn’t score against the Jets’ defense, which forced six turnovers while allowing just six first downs and 162 total yards.
Quarterback Mark Sanchez played only the Jets’ first possession, without throwing a pass, to protect a slightly injured right throwing shoulder, and key Jet inactives included New York’s top two rushers, running backs Shonn Green and LaDainian Tomlinson, starting cornerback Darrelle Revis, and starting safety Eric Smith (who was previously a second-stringer, replacing the injured, usual starter Jim Leonhard, in recent weeks).
But, the Jets’ backups picked up the slack.
Veteran backup Mark Brunell (6-12, 110 yards, 2 TD, 1 INT, 1 sack) threw touchdown passes right before, and just after, throwing an interception that was returned for the Bills’ only score.
Later, Brunell’s backup, Kellen Clemens, one of three Jets (along with utility man Brad Smith) to play quarterback on Sunday, added a 10-yard touchdown run.
And, usual reserve, second-year cornerback Marquis Cole, who entered the game with just 17 tackles and no career interceptions or scores, led the Jets with six tackles and two interceptions, the first of which was returned for the game’s initial touchdown.
It was clear early, that it wouldn’t be Buffalo’s day, as the Jets caught a break on the opening drive of the game, when Buffalo wide receiver Stevie Johnson (5 catches, 72 yards) fumbled while trying to add extra yards to the end of a 33-yard reception to the Jets’ 18 yard-line.
The Jets recovered at their own 11 yard-line and keeping the ball solely on the ground, traveled 79 yards on 12 plays, using up exactly half of the first quarter, to take a 3-0 lead on a 28-yard field goal by Nick Folk, with 4:58 left in the first quarter. Utility man Brad Smith carried three times for 62 yards on the drive, including a nice 40-yard gain on an option run.
After the Bills’ first drive (which went for 55 yards, but which ended with Johnson’s fumble), Buffalo could get nothing going offensively for the rest of the game, with their own backups, Brian Brohm (whose only prior NFL start came last year, as a rookie) and rookie Levi Brown at quarterback.
Brohm, who was held to ten completions in 23 attempts, for 106 yards, was sacked three times, and threw three interceptions, while Brown went 2-for-3, for 24 yards, with an interception.
The Jets held the Bills to no more than 23 yards on any of Buffalo’s final twelve possessions, including eight single-yardage drives and five possessions that ended without positive yardage.
Early in the second quarter, linebacker Calvin Pace got in the face of Brohm, who sailed a weak pass that was intercepted by Cole and returned up the left sideline for 35-yard touchdown, to give the Jets a 10-0 lead with 9:07 left in the opening half.
Having completed just one pass (late in the first quarter) by the two-minute warning of the first half, the Jets finally moved the ball through the air with Brunell completing four of five passes during an 8-play, 59-yard drive that culminated with Brunell finding wide receiver Santonio Holmes (his only catch) on a 17-yard touchdown pass to the left, that extended the Jets’ lead to 17-0, with 15 seconds left in the half.
Three plays after halftime, safety Jarius Byrd intercepted a bad pass to the right flat by Brunell, and returned it 37 yards, to pull the Bills to within 17-7, just 1:44 into the second half.
But, Brunell rebounded two possessions later, with a 52-yard strike to wide receiver Braylon Edwards (his only catch), to put the Jets up, 24-7, with 6:41 left in the third quarter.
The Jets added two more scores in the final period, taking advantage of Bills’ interceptions each time (the first of those two picks was the second career interception for Pace).
A short, 5-play 27-yard drive ended with a 10-yard touchdown run by Clemens, and on the next possession, rookie fullback John Conner (8 rushes, 44 yards, 1 TD) closed the scoring by capping a 5-play, 34-yard drive with a 16-yard touchdown run.
Giving McKnight 32 attempts, the Jets rushed 50 times in 66 plays and held a tremendous ground advantage of 276-37 yards.
With their full compliment of starters returning next week, the Jets, who rode a five seed to Indianapolis last year, will seek revenge against the Colts while trying to begin another playoff run as the AFC’s lowest seed at the same venue where New York’s playoff run ended last year.
The Jets will battle the Colts on Saturday night, at 8 pm, in Lucas Oil Stadium, on NBC-TV.