New York Jets running back LaDainian Tomlinson gave a succinct assessment of the matchup between his team and the Buffalo Bills after the Jets' 27-11 victory in Orchard Park last November.
"They play that pretty ball," Tomlinson said. "We play physical."
Tomlinson retired after the season, but his statement rings with some truth until the Bills prove otherwise. New York has beaten the Bills five consecutive games, and the defense of Jets coach Rex Ryan manhandled the Buffalo offense in four of those meetings.
The Jets' defense has ranked among the top five in the NFL each of the past three years under Ryan's direction. Sunday's season opener in New York looms as a difficult test for Bills coach Chan Gailey and quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick.
"They're gonna get after you," Fitzpatrick said. "They're gonna not give us much time to throw. They're gonna bump. They're gonna play man coverage. They're gonna disguise some stuff. It's a great challenge for us right away, because this is one of the top defenses in the league every year, and this year will be no different."
In five games with the Bills against Ryan's Jets, Fitzpatrick has completed only 49.6 percent of his passes for 159 yards a game, with seven touchdown passes and four interceptions. He has been sacked nine times.
The Bills aren't alone in their struggles vs. Rex & Co. New York held opposing quarterbacks to 54.2 percent completions last year (fourth best in the league), a 6.7 average yards per pass attempt (fourth best) and a passer rating of 69.6 (third best).
New York completely stymied Fitzpatrick's short passing attack in the first meeting last year. Fitzpatrick threw two interceptions to Jets linebackers who dropped into short passing lanes. The Jets led, 27-3, until a late, Bills garbage-time TD.
In the second meeting, the Bills' offense was better. Fitzpatrick threw for 264 yards and three TDs in a 28-24 defeat.
"We left points on the field in the first game, in my opinion," Gailey said. "We played bad, don't get me wrong. But I thought we had opportunities we didn't take advantage of in the first game."
The Jets' 3-4 defense is stout in the front seven. Their defensive line includes Muhammad Wilkerson (315 pounds), Sione Pouha (335 pounds) and Mike DiVito (305 pounds), backed up by rookie first-round pick Quinton Coples (290 pounds) and rookie third-round pick Kenrick Ellis (346 pounds).
"Get used to seeing this defensive line, because you'll probably see them for the next 10 years," Ryan told Buffalo-area reporters on a conference call Wednesday. "You've got Kenrick Ellis in the middle, a 6-foot-5, 350-pound guy that's an absolute beast. You've got Muhammad Wilkerson, who is gonna be - he's not the Mario Williams type, he's more of a Richard Seymour type guy. And Quinton Coples. This group is probably going to be together for 10 years, and I think it could be really good."
Jets inside linebackers Bart Scott and David Harris are two of the best in the league.
The Jets did not have a great pass rush last season. But they still ranked fifth in the league in passing yards allowed thanks to great coverage by what might be the best cornerback duo in the league in All-Pro Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
The Bills can count on man-to-man coverage much of the game on the outside receivers, and Stevie Johnson will be matched up with Revis.
"I know there will be a lot more man than there is going against another team in our division," Johnson said. "Everybody knows the Jets are going to play man and try to blitz you and confuse you, maybe drop some people underneath, which is what I'm expecting.
"Part of what the Jets do is they're gonna throw off the timing because there's a lot of bump and a lot of hitting receivers," Fitzpatrick said. "That's part of what they do."
The Jets were about average last season in terms of the number of times they rushed more than four men. But they zone blitz a lot, threatening to rush five or six over one side of the formation then dropping men back into coverage and rushing only three or four.
"They are really about confusing the offense," Gailey said. "That is what they are all about. They have good players and they are trying to confuse your communication, confuse your techniques.
"It's a matter of staying composed when you're out there," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm going to take hits in this game. ... But I've got to be able to get it out and get it in my guys' hands."
If Fitzpatrick can do it enough, the Bills can put to rest questions about their ability to match up physically with the Jets.
"He's welcome to his own opinion," said Bills center Eric Wood of Tomlinson. "But we've gotten after people in the past around here and we plan on doing that again this year."
"They're a physical football team, we all know that," Wood said. "They play with a fullback on most downs, a tight end or two in the game. They pride themselves on being physical. We play physical without necessarily lining up in normal personnel. We run the football well out of our sub packages, and we led the AFC in rushing last year, per carry."