EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Rex Ryan's defense has been underperforming for much of this season -- until its back was against the wall and its coach's pride was on the line.
The Buffalo Bills' defense held strong on four downs against Ryan's old team in the Bills' 22-17 win Thursday night over the New York Jets, making a goal-line stand to prevent a 19-point lead evaporating into a disastrous loss for the Bills in Ryan's return to MetLife Stadium.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's failed fourth-down lofted pass turned the ball over on downs and is now the signature moment of a Bills defense that has come under fire this season for failing to put up the same statistical marks -- sacks, in particular -- as it did last season under Jim Schwartz.
Even when the Jets tried with less than a minute to drive back downfield, another defensive stop -- a Bacarri Rambo interception -- sealed the deal, allowing Ryan to celebrate with his new team on the sidelines of his old home.
What it means: The Bills won their first prime-time road game in 14 years, snapping an eight-game losing streak that dated to their last prime-time road win in 2001. They'll have a chance to make it two in a row when they travel to Gillette Stadium on Monday Night Football against the New England Patriots for their next game, Nov. 23. Pulling off Buffalo's second win in that venue would launch the Bills back onto the national spotlight and put them squarely on the playoff radar entering the final six games of the regular season.
One reason to get excited: Second place in the AFC East belongs to the Bills -- for now. Four days after a win over the Miami Dolphins kept the Bills out of last place, Buffalo emerged from MetLife Stadium tied with the Jets for second place in the AFC East. In a division that is likely to produce at least one of the AFC's wild-card teams this season, that is an important development for the Bills. Back-to-back wins over division opponents in November is a mark of a team playing well enough to get into the postseason.
One reason to panic: The Bills nearly gave it all away. Credit the Bills' defense for holding strong after the Jets took over on their 13-yard line late in the fourth quarter following a botched Bills punt. But Buffalo should had never been in that spot. They were up 19 points with less than nine minutes remaining in the third quarter and appeared to be firmly in control. Mistakes in all three phases -- including allowing a 31-yard touchdown catch by Eric Decker -- put the Jets within six yards of taking the lead in the game.
What were they thinking? Ryan's decision to challenge a 6-yard Jets completion on second-and-10 late in the second quarter paid off -- the Bills won the challenge and forced New York off the field on third down -- but it made little sense in the context of the entire game. Ryan had lost his first challenge earlier, so no matter the result of his second, he would be out of challenges for the remainder of the game. Was that sort of gamble worth 6 yards? Ryan was lucky there wasn't a close call later in the game where a challenge could have turned the tide. The Bills also burned all of their second-half timeouts by early in the fourth quarter, something else that could have come back to haunt them.
Fantasy watch: I heard from fantasy owners before Thursday's game asking whether to start LeSean McCoy or Karlos Williams in their leagues. McCoy, who dealt with a shoulder injury this week, proved to be an effective play: He finished with 112 yards on 19 carries, although Williams also got in on the action with a 26-yard touchdown reception. Sammy Watkins fell back to Earth after his monster game last Sunday, catching just three passes for 14 yards.
Ouch: Defensive end Mario Williams played sparingly in the first quarter before spending most, if not all, of the second quarter on the bench with an illness. He did not return for the second half. Linebacker Nigel Bradham also briefly exited the game in the third quarter but returned after taking a hit to his head by Jets running back Chris Ivory.