Suddenly relevant Bills can't afford slip vs. Jets

New York Jets quarterback Josh McCown, right, hands off the ball to running back Bilal Powell during the first half of an NFL football game against the Cleveland Browns, Sunday, Oct. 8, 2017, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Richard)

(TSX / STATS) — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — The Buffalo Bills are not just out to prove they are the best team in New York/New Jersey. They have their sights set on conquering the AFC East for the first time since the Clinton administration.

Buffalo (5-2) will try for its fifth win in six games in a Thursday night matchup against the New York Jets (3-5) at MetLife Stadium.

The Bills, who have not won the division since 1995, would move into a tie with the idle New England Patriots for first place in the division with a win.

The Bills signaled they are in win-now mode at the trade deadline Tuesday, acquiring wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin from the Carolina Panthers in exchange for third- and seventh-round picks in next year’s draft.

First-year Buffalo coach Sean McDermott was the defensive coordinator in Carolina for Benjamin’s first three seasons in the league, as was Buffalo general manager Brandon Beane, who was director of football operations and then assistant GM with the Panthers.

“I don’t know what’s been here in the past,” McDermott said Sunday after Buffalo’s 34-14 win over the visiting Oakland Raiders. “I just know that we come out every week, the guys work hard, they respect the process and put the time in. … And that’s the whole ‘earning the right, earning the right,’ you fill in the blank.”

The Bills are trying to earn the right to join the postseason party in a couple months. Their current playoff drought is the NFL’s longest, but this year’s team isn’t bearing the weight of the franchise’s troubled history.

“This team is totally different,” Buffalo linebacker Lorenzo Alexander said. “We don’t hold onto that, that whole 17 years isn’t on us.”

He’s right. And this year’s Bills are dominant in a category that is the most important stat in the NFL except for wins — turnover differential. Buffalo leads the league with a plus-14 margin, 17 takeaways (tied with the Baltimore Ravens for most in the league) and only three giveaways (tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for the least).

Strong safety Micah Hyde leads the NFL with five interceptions, and Alexander leads the league with four forced fumbles. Quarterback Tyrod Taylor has only two interceptions in 196 pass attempts.

“They’re disciplined,” Jets coach Todd Bowles said about the Bills, who earned a 21-12 win in the first matchup between these two teams on opening day in upstate New York. “The biggest thing is they don’t turn it over and they’re getting turnovers. They’re playing good football.”

The Jets, on the other hand, are not playing good football. They have lost three straight after blowing 14-point leads to the Patriots and the Miami Dolphins and being up on the Atlanta Falcons going into the fourth quarter of a 25-20 loss Sunday.

“This is a must-win, period, point blank,” Jets cornerback Morris Claiborne said. “We have to win this game if we want to turn this around.”

But Claiborne may not even be out on the field for the Jets after leaving the Sunday game with a foot injury. He is questionable to play, as is defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson, who played the past three games despite not practicing. Fullback Lawrence Thomas has already been ruled out due to a concussion.

The Jets might also be without Jeremy Kerley, who is being suspended for an undisclosed violation, multiple media outlets reported Tuesday. Kerley, the Jets’ third-leading receiver, had a crucial muffed punt late in the loss to Atlanta. However, he did practice Tuesday and is preparing to play.

For the Bills, tight end Charles Clay is likely to miss his third straight game with a knee injury, and guard Richie Incognito (ankle) and free safety Jordan Poyer (knee) are questionable. McDermott is “hopeful” cornerback E.J. Gaines can return from a hamstring injury after sitting out last week.

Jets running back Matt Forte, who should play despite being limited at practice on Monday because of a knee injury, said if the NFL is truly concerned with player safety, it would do away with Thursday night games.

“Three or four days in between games is not conducive to being healthy in the long run,” he told Newsday on Monday.

Added Bowles about Thursday games: “It’s tough from an injury standpoint, with the nicks on certain guys, especially this late in the year having a Thursday game. But, the preparation, you’re not hitting as much, and you go from a mental standpoint, more film and more of a walk-around and trust that your guys are ready to play.”

This is the third year in a row the Jets and Bills are playing on a Thursday night. The road team won each of the first two meetings.

Despite the teams trending in opposite directions, McDermott still thinks the Jets are a threat.

“Don’t let the record fool you,” McDermott said of New York. “This is a good football team.”

But, for the Bills, the game is a chance to prove they belong with the conference’s elite teams.

Said Taylor: “Everyone’s going to be tuning into ‘Thursday Night Football,’ (and we want) to show this team is real.”

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