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3 games on NY Jets’ schedule that could be easier than expected

Sauce Gardner, Josh Allen, NY Jets, Bills
Sauce Gardner, New York Jets, Josh Allen, Buffalo Bills, Getty Images

NFL schedules are never as they seem

Rivka Boord recently identified three teams on the New York Jets’ 2024 schedule who could be tougher than expected. Let’s take the opposite angle. Which opponents on the Jets’ schedule might end up being easier than expected?

Buffalo Bills

It’s unlikely the Bills will ever be a pushover as long as Josh Allen is on the field. However, the Bills’ elite record over the past few seasons was not solely because of Allen. Buffalo has been a well-oiled machine on both sides of the football, boasting one of the most complete rosters in the NFL throughout the 2020s.

For the first time this decade, that is not the case. Buffalo’s roster was purged this offseason. Gone are many of the core pieces who powered the Bills’ success in the Sean McDermott era.

The safety duo of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde was the backbone of Buffalo’s defense for the last seven seasons. They were the primary reason that Buffalo was consistently the league’s best team at preventing big plays. Both players are gone. The Bills also lost edge rusher Leonard Floyd, who led the team with 10.5 sacks last season. Two-time Pro Bowl cornerback Tre’Davious White was released, although he only played 10 games over the past two seasons.

Offensively, the Bills traded away Stefon Diggs, which is a major killer not just because Diggs is a star, but because the Bills’ offense was built around him to an incredible degree. Even in an elite offense that passes the ball at a high volume, Diggs was the lone Bills player over the past four years to have a season with 1,000 receiving yards. Overall, he had 5,372 of the Bills’ 13,046 receiving yards from 2020 to 2023, a whopping 41% from one player. Diggs carried this passing game.

That level of production would be difficult to replace no matter who the Bills got, but the problem is, they didn’t do much of anything. The top wide receivers on their depth chart are Khalil Shakir, Curtis Samuel, second-round rookie Keon Coleman, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

On top of losing Diggs, the Bills also lost Gabriel Davis, who was the team’s No. 2 receiver. Davis had 2,730 receiving yards over his four years in Buffalo. He and Diggs combined for 61% of the Bills’ receiving yards over the past four years. All of that production is gone, and the Bills will try to replace it with a wide receiver unit that looks like one of the worst in the NFL.

The Bills even released their starting center, Mitch Morse, who started 77 games for them over the past five seasons. Morse was rated as PFF’s fifth-best pass-blocking center in 2023. He’ll be replaced by former Cowboys guard Connor McGovern, who has only played 100 snaps at center in four NFL seasons.

Again, don’t get me wrong: This Buffalo team is no pushover. But I’m not so sure this is the same team that effortlessly won 11-plus games in each of the past four seasons. Buffalo was stacking double-digit-win seasons with such ease because their overall roster was significantly better than almost every team they played, allowing them to amass blowout wins and avoid close games. Their point differential was at least +126 in each season of the 2020s, ranking top-five each year. When you’re doing that, you’ll easily win 11 games on the regular even if some close games bounce the wrong way.

I don’t think Buffalo has the all-around talent to blow teams out like they used to. On paper, this looks like a roster that ranks in the middle of the pack. I think they’re going to have a near-even point differential and play in a ton of close games. So, their final win-loss record will depend on how well they perform in clutch situations.

The Jets already had no problem beating the Bills at home with Zach Wilson in each of the past two years, so they’ll likely be favored when Buffalo comes to town in Week 6. It’s winning in Buffalo that has troubled the Jets, as they’ve lost four straight in Western New York while averaging 11.3 points per game. But with a massively improved offense (and hopefully a massively better quarterback) against a depleted Bills team, marching into Buffalo on a frigid December afternoon doesn’t seem as daunting as it used to.

Pittsburgh Steelers

The Jets are currently favored by just one point in their Week 7 trip to Pittsburgh, which ties it for the fourth-toughest game on the Jets’ schedule based on point spreads. I’ve commonly seen it marked with an “L” on Jets schedule predictions – I even chalked this one up as a loss when making my prediction on Friday’s Blewett’s Blitz. It’s a road game against a team that went 10-7 last year, making it an easy pick to be one of the Jets’ likelier losses.

I get that the Steelers have gone .500 or better in every year of the Mike Tomlin era. I get that playing in Pittsburgh can be tough. But this Steelers team… isn’t all that good.

Pittsburgh got outscored by 20 points last year. Only the Chargers, Broncos, Titans, Jets, and Patriots had a worse point differential in the AFC. Yet, the Steelers went 10-7 and made the playoffs. That smells like a fluky team due to regress to the mean.

The Steelers lost five games by multiple scores and only claimed one multi-score win of their own (at home against a Bengals team without Joe Burrow or Ja’Marr Chase). In one-score games, they went a stunning 9-2.

I’m getting 2022-23 Vikings vibes. Minnesota had a -3 point differential in 2022 and a -18 point differential in 2023 – a difference of less than one point per game. Yet, they won 13 games in 2022 and seven in 2023. That’s because the Vikings fluked their way to an 11-0 record in 2022, only for the football gods to restore balance in 2023 as Minnesota went 6-8 in one-score games.

There isn’t much to fear on Pittsburgh’s roster. They have an elite defensive line led by T.J. Watt and Cameron Heyward, but outside of that, there are numerous holes that the Jets are built to exploit.

New York’s elite cornerback trio has a major advantage against a Steelers wide receiver unit that looks like one of the league’s thinnest after losing Diontae Johnson. A group led by George Pickens, Van Jefferson, third-round rookie Roman Wilson, and Calvin Austin will be severely outmatched against Sauce Gardner, D.J. Reed, and Michael Carter II. That should make life incredibly difficult for Justin Fields or Russell Wilson.

On the other side of the field, the Jets’ wide receivers will have a chance to feast on a weak cornerback unit. Pittsburgh’s projected starting trio of Joey Porter, Donte Jackson, and slot man Darius Rush is ripe for the picking. Porter ranked second among cornerbacks in penalties (12) and allowed the fifth-most yards per reception (15.4) among 88 qualifiers. Jackson allowed the 11th-highest passer rating among qualified corners (111.1). Rush, a fifth-round pick last year, gave up two touchdowns in just 22 coverage snaps during the preseason before playing only 39 defensive snaps in the regular season, spending most of the year on the practice squad. Garrett Wilson and Mike Williams should scorch this unit.

Pittsburgh ranks 20th on Mike Clay’s roster ranking. The Steelers are primarily weighed down by their No. 27 rankings at wide receiver and cornerback, while their No. 22 ranking at quarterback is also an issue. Their front seven will present a stiff challenge for the Jets’ rebuilt offensive line, but other than that, the Jets should control this matchup with ease.

The Jets are significantly more talented than this team. I expect the spread to be much wider than one point by gameday.

Tennessee Titans

Some are talking about the Titans game as one that could be tougher than expected. I don’t see it. This one feels like a cakewalk to me. (I’m going against Rivka here, who chose Tennessee as a team that could be tougher than expected.)

The Jets are only favored by 3.5 points against Tennessee in Week 2, which supports the idea that people are viewing this as a sneakily tough game rather than a cakewalk. Yes, this is a road game on short rest for New York, but the Titans’ over-under is set at 5.5 wins. This is a team with very low expectations. I think they should be getting way more than 3.5 points against this Jets team.

I see Tennessee falling under 5.5 wins. This does not look like a 6-plus-win roster when you break it down.

The main thing that stands out positively is their wide receiver unit, and even that group looks questionable to me. A trio of Calvin Ridley, DeAndre Hopkins, and Tyler Boyd sounds good since we’ve all heard of these players, but let’s talk about trajectories.

Hopkins is going to turn 32 soon. In 2023, he had the lowest receiving success rate of his career at 43.8%, per Pro Football Reference. Hopkins also had a career-low contested catch rate in 2023, an abysmal 22.7% (5 for 22). That’s an alarming sign for his future since contested catches are supposed to be the main appeal of his game.

Boyd will turn 30 in November and had a career-low 6.8 yards per target this past season, along with his fewest yards per game (39.2) since 2017 and a career-low in contested catch rate (40%). Ridley will turn 30 in December and is coming off a career-low overall catch rate (55.9%) in addition to his worst marks in yards per target (7.5) and contested catch rate (36.4%) outside of a five-game season in 2021.

So… is this unit actually good? Or does it merely look good because of name recognition?

The offensive line is littered with holes. Right tackle Dillon Radunz ranked 57th out of 70 tackles in pass-blocking efficiency last season and committed 11 penalties in 13 games. Right guard Daniel Brunskill was 47th out of 65 qualified guards in pass-blocking efficiency. The Titans need to see a big leap at left guard from their 2023 first-round pick, Peter Skoronski, who ranked 53rd out of 65 guards in pass-blocking efficiency during his rookie season.

Tennessee did sign one of the league’s best centers in Lloyd Cushenberry and draft tackle JC Latham with the seventh overall pick. As a rookie, though, Latham is unlikely to be better than average.

The Titans also no longer have Derrick Henry to rely on out of the backfield. They added Tony Pollard to replace him, but I’m not sure the Titans paid attention to how he handled a lead role in Dallas last year.

Pollard was a great complementary back over his first four years with the Cowboys, averaging 5.1 yards per carry on 8.2 carries per game, but on a career-high 14.8 carries per game in 2023, he stooped to a career-low 4.0 yards per carry. Yet, Tennessee signed Pollard to a three-year, $21.75 million deal that ranks ninth-highest among running backs in average annual value ($7.25 million), suggesting they view him as their go-to guy. 2023 third-round pick Tyjae Spears provides a nice complement to Pollard after averaging 4.5 yards per carry on 100 tries in his rookie year, but the Titans lack the game-altering force out of the backfield that anchored their offense for so many years.

Defensively, the Titans look poised to be one of the worst units in the league.

Defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons is a star, but he’s the only player worth writing home about. Their next-best pass rusher is Harold Landry, who ranked 41st among edge rushers in pressures last year. Tennessee’s pass rush was already poor, ranking 27th in pressure rate and 26th in QB hits last year, and the unit only seems to be trending down. They lost edge rusher Denico Autry in free agency, who led the team in sacks (11.5) and total pressures (53), and their only notable addition to the defensive line was second-round defensive tackle T’Vondre Sweat. The edge unit failed to replace Autry and looks barren.

The Titans’ safety duo doesn’t feature a notable player after they traded Kevin Byard to Philadelphia last season. Amani Hooker and Elijah Molden ranked 38th and 66th, respectively, out of 74 qualifiers on PFF’s leaderboard last year. Acquiring cornerback L’Jarius Sneed from the Chiefs was a good pickup, but even he has his warts after leading cornerbacks with 17 penalties last year. He is flanked by Chidobe Awuzie, who allowed the eighth-highest passer rating among cornerbacks last year (112.8). Slot corner Roger McCreary is a solid player.

Even the linebacker unit is an issue. Projected starting linebacker Kenneth Murray allowed the fifth-highest passer rating among linebackers last year (119.8).

Finally, we get to the X-factor of it all: quarterback Will Levis.

Count me out on the Levis hype. He looks like a Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston-esque backup to me – i.e. a gunslinging bomb-chucker who can make some splashy plays but doesn’t have the decision-making, accuracy, or ball security to be a quality starter.

In his rookie year, Levis had the second-worst adjusted completion percentage out of 39 qualified quarterbacks at 69.1%, joining Bailey Zappe as the only qualifiers under 70%. Levis’ 4.5% turnover-worthy throw rate was third-worst, trailing only Mac Jones and Desmond Ridder.

Levis did display legitimate playmaking upside, as he ranked seventh-best with a big-time throw rate of 5.9%. However, I think that number is inflated since he chucked up so many deep bombs, making it inevitable that he would hit quite a few “big-time throws.” Levis’ 11.0 ADOT (average depth of target) was the highest among qualifiers, a full 1.6 yards ahead of second-ranked Joe Flacco (9.5). The gap between Levis and Flacco was as large as the gap between Flacco and the 25th-ranked quarterback (7.9). That is downright absurd. The style of football he was playing is nowhere remotely close to sustainable.

Levis could make me eat my words, for sure. I’ll believe it when I see it, though. Not only did he fall into the second round of last year’s draft, but he is already going to be 25 years old this summer. Levis played five years of college football and still looks like a major work in progress. What we saw last year might just be who he is.

My prediction: The Titans are going to win fewer than six games this season, and the Jets will beat them to a pulp in Week 2.

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