Bills-Jets provides early measuring stick

New York's Mark Sanchez, left, and Buffalo's Mario Williams must step up this season if their teams are to live up to expectations. US Presswire

Are the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets contenders or pretenders?

We are about to find out right away where each AFC East team stands when the Jets host the Bills Sunday at MetLife Stadium in the regular-season opener.

This is arguably the most underrated game on the NFL's Week 1 schedule. It involves two division rivals that finished with nonwinning records last season and face plenty of pressure to improve in 2012. The Jets are trying to prove last year's self-implosion was a fluke and that they are closer to the playoff team that recently made it to back-to-back AFC title games. The Bills, with a vastly improved roster, have outside hype and internal playoff aspirations for the first time in a long time.

It is the perfect measuring-stick game for both AFC East rivals.

"To get to where we want to be, we have to win games in the division," Bills tailback Fred Jackson told reporters in Buffalo this week. "We get a good test right out of the gate. We go out, go down to New York and try to get a win there.

"Without a doubt, we are excited about it. This is our chance to go out and prove what we felt this whole offseason."

The Bills feel good about this year's team. But can they beat the Jets?

New York has had Buffalo's number the past few years. New York is an impressive 7-1 against Buffalo in its last eight meetings. The Jets have won five straight against the Bills, who last won in this series in 2009.

In fact, Buffalo has been downright awful against the entire AFC East. The Bills are just 2-10 against division teams in two years under head coach Chan Gailey.

"They were better than us, but we gotta change that," Buffalo general manager Buddy Nix told the AFC East blog in training camp. "We hadn’t measured up in the two years we’d been here. Even though if we could’ve stayed healthy [last year] I thought we could've been in contention at the end."

If the Bills are legit this year, as some people think, they go on the road and pick up a huge win Sunday against the Jets, who finished 8-8 last year.

Likewise, if the 2012 Jets are legit playoff contenders, they must defend their home field against the Bills, who were 6-10 last season. The fact that New York has owned Buffalo the past four years should provide the Jets plenty of confidence. The Jets can get much-needed momentum by picking up a division win at home.

In many ways, New York or Buffalo can validate itself by winning in Week 1. It will be a nice statement that one of these teams has moved beyond its losing ways from 2011. The loser on Sunday will continue to face questions about being a pretender.

Much of New York's and Buffalo's success in this game -- and this season -- comes down to the quarterbacks. Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez and Bills counterpart Ryan Fitzpatrick have a lot to prove. Both have contracts totaling just under $120 million, and they have yet to show they are legitimate franchise quarterbacks.

About two-thirds of those responding to a recent AFC East blog poll think Fitzpatrick will have the better season. Fitzpatrick will be tested this weekend against a very good New York defense, while Sanchez must hope for better pass protection than he received this preseason against Buffalo's talented defensive line.

Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow also will have an impact in this game. But how much?

New York has been very coy this summer with its Wildcat packages. But the Bills did very well against Tebow and the similar read-option offense he ran with the Denver Broncos last year. Buffalo beat Denver 40-14 last December and pummeled Tebow. The quarterback completed just 13 of 29 passes for 185 yards, one touchdown, three interceptions and was sacked four times.

The Bills are well-versed in the Wildcat. Interestingly, Buffalo quarterbacks coach David Lee introduced Jets offensive coordinator Tony Sparano to the Wildcat offense in Miami. The Jets have kept their package under wraps this preseason, but Buffalo should be one of the most prepared teams for the Tebow package that the Jets face all season.

"We'll see who out-executes the other," Jets head coach Rex Ryan said this week.

This is a no-excuse year for the Jets and Bills. I don't want to hear about injuries this season in Buffalo, and I don't want to hear about poor chemistry in New York. If any team in the AFC East besides the New England Patriots is a legitimate playoff contender, it's time for the Jets or Bills to prove it.

We will know a lot more about both AFC East teams following Sunday's game.

"I just want to have one more point than the Bills do and that's every week," Ryan said. "It doesn’t matter. The defense has to hold them to this. The offense has to score. We don’t care. It’s all about getting one more point than the opponent and that’s it. If that means we don’t score a touchdown and we still win, we’ll be happy and the Jet fans will be happy."