This very second, on November 4, 2011, at 1 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, the Buffalo Bills are leading the AFC East. It has been a crazy NFL season so far — the NFL team most likely to make the playoffs is San Francisco — but if the Bills make the playoffs, with the powerhouse Patriots and Jets going all-in themselves, that's the story of the year, isn't it? The Bills haven't made the playoffs in twelve years; the last play they've experienced in the playoffs was the Music City Miracle. The Jets' quarterback when they played at Buffalo that 1999 season was Rick Mirer. Been a long time.
The Bills can go a long way toward making the 2011 Big Story a reality if they can beat the Jets on Sunday in Buffalo, the first of the two matchups between the teams this year. In fact, the Bills and the Jets are gonna go a long way toward determining each other's fates during the second half of the season. Considering the teams' schedules the rest of the way — and considering the Bills have already beaten the Patriots once — a sweep by either team probably means a ticket to the playoffs. And a split could keep them both out.
Sunday is the most compelling matchup between the two teams in years, and, like almost every Jets matchup these days, much of it will come down to Mark Sanchez. The Jets should be able to run the ball this week, like they always do against the Bills. But they can't turn it over, and capitalizing on turnovers is precisely how the Bills have ended up in first place at this point. In his excellent AFC mid-season review at Grantland, Bill Barnwell focused in on the Bills' good fortune so far:
Turnovers have been the fuel in Buffalo's stunning rise to the top of the AFC East. The Bills have a league-high 14 interceptions in just seven games, and all those short fields create opportunities for an offense that had not lost a fumble until last week. Only two teams over the past 20 years have averaged two picks per game (like the Bills currently are, if you can't divide 14 by seven), so it's hard to figure that Jairus Byrd & Co. will be able to keep the interceptions at this level. If only they got to play Michael Vick again!
That's to say: The Bills have somewhat overperformed to this point. Meanwhile, the Jets have underperformed, thanks in large part to a banged-up, ineffective offensive line ... a line that's starting to get healthier and play better. Which means, after a bye, the Jets are in a perfect position to put the Bills back in their place, to restore order in the AFC East, even on the road. But they've got to hang on to the football. With the Jets and Sanchez, it's the same as it always is: It inevitably comes back to that.