Surprising Jets must beat Bills to maintain playoff position

Jets running back Bilal Powell (no. 29) congratulates Jets running back Bilal Powell (no. 29) congratulates teammate Geno Smith (no. 7) after Smith scored during the first half against the Buffalo Bills. (Sept. 22, 2013) Photo Credit: Lee S. Weissman

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BUFFALO

Go ahead, admit it. Some of you never thought the Jets would be here: 5-4, second place in the AFC East and a legitimate playoff contender in mid-November.

Somehow, all of the variables that should have hindered this team -- a rookie quarterback, a third offensive coordinator in as many seasons, a lack of big-name skill players and a coach on the proverbial hot seat -- have generated one of the biggest surprises of this NFL season.

Or was it a surprise?

"All these so-called experts and people that don't play football think we were deserving of being ranked 32nd [in the league],'' linebacker Calvin Pace said. "But we've always believed that we [could be] a playoff team. That was our goal, so it's nothing new to us. Now people can kind of see, hey, they are kind of halfway decent. But we've still got a lot of football left and some work to do.''

The Jets departed for Buffalo this weekend with one goal in mind: winning back-to-back games for the first time in 2013. And if Rex Ryan's team can find a way to defeat the Bills (3-7) for the second time this season, they'll maintain their hold on a potential wild-card playoff spot.

But victory Sunday can come only with the help of Geno Smith. He had a roller-coaster first half, throwing eight touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. And he'll need to prove that he's heeded the coaching staff's message about protecting the football. Smith, however, doesn't appear to be the least bit concerned about hitting a second-half "rookie wall.''

"I think everyone's different,'' he said this past week. "If I feel I'm going to hit a rookie wall, I'm the type of guy that's going to wake myself up and snap right out of it. So I don't think that should be too much of a problem.''

Smith also seemed to take exception to the assumption that he's not a cold-weather quarterback. That criticism arose during his senior year at West Virginia, which ended with a poor showing at snowy Yankee Stadium in a 38-14 loss to Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl (16-for-24, 187 yards, two safeties, on a sack and for intentional grounding).

"I've played in plenty of cold games and I don't think that was really an issue,'' Smith said. "I don't know who's to say or if it is or it isn't [true], but I don't have a problem with it.''

Smith won't get the chance to prove it at Ralph Wilson Stadium, however. Sunday's forecast is for 60 degrees with wind and a 70-percent chance of rain.

The Jets had a breakout game against the Bills in Week 3, with Santonio Holmes (154 receiving yards), Stephen Hill (108 receiving yards) and Bilal Powell (149 rushing yards) recording career numbers. Smith had his first 300-yard passing performance, completing 16 of 29 passes for 331 yards. He threw two TD passes and two interceptions.

Although Smith will be without slot receiver Jeremy Kerley (dislocated elbow) this time, Holmes is expected to play for the first time since suffering a serious hamstring injury against the Titans Sept. 29. Tight end Jeff Cumberland, who missed the Jets' pre-bye week win over the Saints because of a concussion, also is expected back, along with tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. (four-game suspension).

Buffalo will be without two key wide receivers -- Stevie Johnson (groin) and Robert Woods (ankle). But this time the Bills will have cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety Jairus Byrd, both of whom sat out the Week 3 game because of injuries.

The Jets' defense will counter with its own big-name addition: safety Ed Reed. It's unclear how much the 12-year veteran, who was signed Thursday to a one-year, $940,000 deal, will play. But Ryan insisted Friday that "he'll be ready to roll. We are definitely going to play him.''

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