On paper, it's one of the biggest mismatches of the NFL season.
The New York Jets (1-4) have dropped four straight, the longest losing streak of the Rex Ryan era. The team is immersed in turmoil, thanks to a cursing quarterback who lacks punctuality. The Denver Broncos (3-1) look poised for another Super Bowl run, with Peyton Manning coming off one of the best games of his career.
It's a home game for the Jets, but that might not be a good thing. It will get ugly if embattled quarterback Geno Smith gets off to another bad start.
ESPN Jets reporter Rich Cimini and ESPN Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold discuss the matchup:
Cimini: So, Jeff, the Broncos return to the scene of The Debacle in February. Do they believe in ghosts?
Legwold: The Broncos' 35-point loss in Super Bowl XLVIII has, in many ways, tainted some people's view of the team. Super Bowl cave-in or not, step back and look at things with perspective. The Broncos are a team that scored more points than any in league history last season (606 points) and arrive back at MetLife Stadium with a roster that is deeper overall and has far more athleticism with more youth than people realize, with 24 players in their third, second or first seasons. They also have plenty of new faces, especially on defense, so the Super Bowl loss is little more than conversation for those players.
But the loss was the root of everything the team did in the offseason, especially in free agency. John Elway opened up the checkbook to revamp the defense with DeMarcus Ware, T.J. Ward and Aqib Talib to go with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. So in the end, they believe it's a new year, one in which they hope they can get another crack at the title.
In terms of how these two teams are put together, at 1-4 do you think the Jets' approach in personnel evaluation matches the depth chart the coaching staff would like to have? Is there a disconnect there that's affecting what this team can do on the field?
Cimini: They say no, but I believe there are conflicting agendas between the front office and the coaching staff. General manager John Idzik tore it down last year and is trying to rebuild through the draft, not spending much money along the way. In fact, the Jets have the lowest cash payroll in the league. Idzik is taking a lot of heat for his frugal ways, but it's part of his big-picture view. There's nothing wrong with that philosophy, but there have been hiccups along the way.
Idzik misplayed the cornerback market in the offseason, leaving Rex Ryan undermanned at a critical position in his defense. He needs man-to-man corners to play his pressure-oriented scheme, and the best they came up with was Dimitri Patterson -- who was released after going AWOL in the preseason. Right now, I don't think the roster is better than a year ago, and that's inexcusable, considering they had 12 draft picks and a ton of cap space. Ryan will never admit it publicly, but he has to feel handcuffed by the personnel. In the end, he'll be the scapegoat if the team continues to sputter. He won't survive a losing season -- and he knows it.
Ryan has to figure out a way to stop Manning, who appears to be at the top of his game. So does the entire offense. Do you see any way they can have a subpar game against the Jets?
Legwold: The only front-to-back clunker the Broncos put together in the 2013 regular season was a Thursday night loss in Denver to the San Diego Chargers. Other than that, they have kept their edge on this side of the Super Bowl blowout as well. They haven't put together four quality quarters in a game this year, but last Sunday was close in a 41-20 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The Broncos are loaded with players who want a shot at the trophy and openly talk about Super Bowl or bust, so the expectation should be they'll play aggressively Sunday. They haven't run the ball with much pop for most of their first four games, so that is an issue for them. And turnovers can doom even this offense. But Manning is next-level sharp at the moment, and if a defense can't pressure him with four to get enough players in coverage, they have too many impact players to double them all.
Offensively, what do you think the Jets' thinking is at quarterback these days? And does Geno Smith have the support of the locker room?
Cimini: The organization has invested a lot of time and faith in Smith, but it hasn't received much in return. He displayed promise in the first two games, but his play has dropped dramatically -- a 61.4 passer rating over the past three games. He reverted to bad habits, showing poor pocket presence, failing to recognize blitzes and not seeing the entire field. His supporting cast is suspect, especially the receiving corps, but the offense still is underachieving. We're talking about only four touchdowns in the past 14 quarters. To make it worse, Smith made two lapses in judgment that the fans won't forget -- cursing a heckler and missing a team meeting in San Diego. If he starts poorly Sunday, the crowd will turn on him.
In my opinion, Michael Vick should start this week. He also struggled in the 31-0 loss to the Chargers, but he'd be better with a full week of practice reps. Ryan pulled Smith at halftime, but he was quick to issue a vote of confidence after the game. Smith has always received strong support from the locker room, but my sense is there could be a shift if he continues to disappoint. The missed-meeting episode was an eye-opener for some players.
The expected return of Eric Decker, out last week with a hamstring injury, should help Smith. I suppose the Broncos are managing quite nicely without Decker. Do you think they're happy he left?
Legwold: "Happy" probably isn't the word. They wish him the best, enjoyed what he did in the offense and respected how he went about his business. They just didn't think he was a No. 1 receiver and weren't going to pay him like one, especially since receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas have deals that expire after this season. That money was going elsewhere.
From a football perspective, they think Sanders is a better fit overall -- even if he's smaller than Decker and doesn't have a touchdown catch yet this season. The Broncos like Sanders' versatility: He played full-time in the slot in some of his seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers and been a full-time player on the outside in his final year there. The Broncos also use Sanders as a runner, and he leads the team in catches and receiving yards through four games.
Decker did get the big contract. Are the Jets worried his hamstring troubles might linger all season? And do you expect people to make him the face of the team's struggles if things don't get better?
Cimini: There's no chance of that happening. If it continues to spiral, Smith will be the face of the collapse -- him and Ryan. Decker's only crime is that he hasn't been healthy. The hamstring issue started in the preseason, causing him to miss practice time. He has played only 3½ games, none of them at 100 percent. He still leads the team with 204 receiving yards, so what does that say about the passing game? He might not be a true No. 1 receiver, but he's the No. 1 receiver in the Jets' universe. When he's not on the field, it really hurts the offense. Teams load up the box and blitz -- a lot.
I think Decker will play this week; I'm sure this game means a lot to him. A few weeks ago, he said in a radio interview that he doesn't root for the Broncos anymore, which suggests he harbors hard feelings. I wish I could inject him with truth serum with the hope of getting an honest answer to a question a lot of folks must be thinking: What's it like going from one of the greatest quarterbacks in history to the lowest-rated quarterback in the league?