If all goes well for the Bills and Jets over the next few years and beyond, Sunday’s matchup between rookie quarterbacks Josh Allen and Sam Darnold could be the kickoff to one of the league’s next great rivalries. Or not.
Making this jump is getting way ahead of things considering that Allen, Buffalo’s No. 7 overall pick in 2018, and Darnold, taken No. 3 overall by New York, have combined to play just 17 games in their rookie years. It’s probably too early to predict something on the lines of Jim Kelly vs. Dan Marino in the 1980s and 1990s when the two Hall of Famers battled twice annually, and even a couple times in the playoffs.
However, because Allen and Darnold were part of the celebrated first-round quarterback class, and they play in the same division, this has a chance to be something special.
The first meeting was supposed to have taken place on Nov. 11 in New York, but both players sat out with injuries. Matt Barkley, in the only game he has played for the Bills, led a 41-10 rout over Josh McCown and the Jets.
Allen returned to action two weeks ago and has injected much-needed life into one of the NFL’s worst offenses. Darnold has missed the last three games, but the Jets cleared him to return to play when the teams meet at New Era Field.
Allen helped the Bills defeat Jacksonville on Nov. 25, and very nearly produced a last-minute come-from-behind victory at Miami, only to see tight end Charles Clay fail to catch Allen’s slightly-underthrown fourth-down heave to the end zone. Allen finished with 231 yards passing and 135 yards rushing, producing 85 percent of the Bills’ total offense.
“He’s a competitive player,” said Bills’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. “Tough, strong obviously, has made a lot of plays with his legs over the last two weeks. Can make them with his arm, too. I’m sure there’s a few plays that Josh would like to have back, just like all of us when we don’t come out on top. We’re working each week to try to improve. I think he’s taken steps, he’s getting better.”
Naturally, Allen got off to a tough start after being thrust into the lineup in the third quarter of the season opener in Baltimore. He wasn’t ready to play, and it showed as he struggled right up until the Oct. 14 loss in Houston when he suffered an elbow injury that knocked him out of the next four games.
However, Allen has come back with more confidence, and it looks as if the time on the sideline, plus the mentoring he’s getting from veterans Barkley and Derek Anderson is paying off. He made several key plays in the win over the Jaguars, then was the best player on the field in Miami. Still, Allen remains a work in progress.
“There’s a lot of things, though, that we need to keep working on and harp on and improve on,” said Daboll. “But each week he’s been in there, there’s been improvement. You’d like to hit all of those throws that we have and make all the right reads and all the decisions, but the young man is really fun to work with. Takes his craft really serious for a young player. There’s going to be some downs. He’s done OK the last couple weeks. I think that we’ve just got to keep grinding it out and really improving in all the stuff that we can.”
This will be the 116th regular-season meeting and the Bills lead the series 61-54. On Nov. 11 the Bills blew out the Jets 41-10 in a game started by Matt Barkley, his only appearance as the Bills’ quarterback. The teams split the series in 2017, while the Jets swept in 2016 and the Bills swept in 2015.
BY THE NUMBERS
4 – That’s how many players in NFL history who have thrown at least two touchdown passes and rushed for more than 125 yards in the same game. The others to do it were Michael Vick of the Eagles in 2010, Bears running back Walter Payton in 1983, and Green Bay’s Tobin Rote in 1951. Josh Allen joined that group last week in Miami with two TD passes and 135 yards rushing.
- C Russell Bodine suffered a broken fibula in Miami, underwent surgery Monday, and is out for the year. Ryan Groy will likely fill his spot.
- CB Taron Johnson underwent shoulder surgery Wednesday and he is out for the rest of the season. CB Denzel Rice was called up from the practice squad to take his roster spot.
- WR Kelvin Benjamin had seen a decrease in his playing time to 40 percent of the snaps against Jacksonville, a season-low, but after going back up to 60 percent against the Dolphins, he had only two catches for 20 yards. That was enough for the front office, so Benjamin was released on Tuesday, ending a disappointing 18-game tenure in Buffalo.
- WR Andre Holmes was also cut on Tuesday. He made 12 catches playing infrequently on offense, but he was one of the team’s core special teams players. He’s a free agent at the end of the season and did not factor into the future.
- FB Patrick DiMarco is rarely on the field when the Bills are on offense, but he made a big play against Miami, flaring out to the right where he was wide open for a career-long 38-yard catch and run which helped set up a field goal.
- WR Deonte Thompson rejoined the Bills two weeks ago and did not catch a pass against the Jaguars, but he got on the board with one catch for 12 yards against the Dolphins.
- P Matt Darr made a solid debut after being signed before the Miami game. He averaged 44.3 net yards on four punts with a long of 53 and two downed inside the 20.
- SS Micah Hyde was in on four tackles at Miami and also made his second interception of the season.
- CB Levi Wallace seems to have locked down a starting job. In his third consecutive start in Miami, he was in on four tackles and the Dolphins passed for only 137 yards against the Buffalo secondary.
- DE Mike Love was promoted from the practice squad.
CB Levi Wallace. Wallace walked on Alabama and became a starter as a senior in 2017 and helped lead the Crimson Tide to a national championship. He then went undrafted in 2018, but the Bills signed him and he was with them throughout the offseason and training camp. Though he didn’t make the final roster, the Bills brought him back onto the practice squad, and there he stayed until the Nov. 11 game against the Jets. Buffalo cut veteran Phillip Gaines and named Wallace the starter, and in three games he has held his own on the NFL’s No. 1-ranked pass defense. He has 10 tackles and one pass breakup.
Josh Allen produced 85 percent of the Bills’ offense last week in the loss to Miami, and that doesn’t figure to change much against the Jets. It’s clear that Allen has taken ownership of the offense both as a passer but as a runner, and he now represents Buffalo’s biggest threat in both areas. He has only 91 fewer yards rushing than LeSean McCoy in two fewer games played. What the Bills have to be wary of is opposing teams catching on to his scrambling and perhaps putting a spy on him. If the Jets do this, Allen will have to show more patience in the pocket and go through his reads a touch longer before deciding to take off.
Jets rookie QB Sam Darnold has struggled with interceptions, having thrown 11 in the nine games he has played for a percentage rate of 4.8. Now he will be confronted with a Buffalo defense that leads the NFL against the pass, allowing just 187.2 yards per game. New York’s offensive line has not been strong, and the Bills will look to pressure Darnold with their front four and play coverage behind, creating smaller windows for Darnold to throw into. In the first meeting, the Bills sacked aging Josh McCown three times and held him to a passer rating of 35.8.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Bills QB Josh Allen vs. Jets LB Darron Lee. Allen has been a terror the last two weeks with 234 rushing yards, most of that coming on scrambles. And while he is showing signs of improvement as a passer, most of the chunk yardage plays have come with his legs. In a terribly disappointing season for the Jets, Lee has been one of New York’s best players and his athleticism should play a key role in limiting Allen’s running. Lee may even specifically spy Allen on certain plays, so it will be a test for Allen to see how he reacts.
Bills CBs vs. Jets WRs. Darnold will be itching to throw the ball after sitting out a month, but he will be challenged by the NFL’s top-ranked pass defense. Tre’Davious White has become one of the best CBs in the league, while rookie CB Levi Wallace has solidified the other side in the three games he has played. Losing rookie nickel CB Taron Johnson to shoulder surgery will hurt the Bills, though, so if White travels with Jets WR Robby Anderson, the Jets may be able to attack the other spots with Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa.