Michael Lombardi: Aaron Rodgers injury and the AFC East impact on Bills, Dolphins, Patriots, and Jets

September 12, 2023 07:26 AM

Welcome to the wide-open AFC East

On a beautiful fall day in 1972 at Yankee Stadium, as the Meadowlands was under construction, the New York Giants hosted the Washington Redskins.  As a thirteen-year-old boy, I was delighted to be away from home, secluded in a basement in Wilmington, Delaware, eating homemade chocolate cookies and watching my favorite team.  

During this time, had I stayed in Jersey, the only game on the television was the Eagles game.  My hour-and-a-half trip to see my relatives allowed a different viewing game. Lucky for me, they chose my favorite team—Washington and the Over the Hill Gang.  Washington’s best chance that season to be a great team was getting their star quarterback and future Hall of Famer Sonny Jurgensen back on the field.  

After completing his first pass for 13 yards, Sonny dropped back again and then gingerly walked off the field with an injury—never to return that season.  My panic set in leading to me consuming as many cookies as I could. Later, we learned Sonny had the dreaded “old man’s injury,” an Achilles tendon tear. 

On another beautiful October day, on the shores of Lake Erie, in my little box on the roof at old Cleveland Stadium, working for the Browns, the Miami Dolphins came to town with their future Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino.  Late in the second quarter, Marino drops back to throw, and tries to push off his ankle and can’t.  Suddenly, he walks off the field, apparently injured.  Later we learned that he too had the dreaded “old man’s injury.” Marino was only 33, whereas Sonny was 38.  Both players returned to play.  Sonny started eight more games over his career, and he never looked the same. Marino played six more seasons and continued to do Marino-like things. 

After the injury to their starting quarterback and knowing they lost their best player, both teams went on to win the game.  Miami went 9-7 on the year. Washington went to the Super Bowl with Billy Kilmer under center and lost to Miami 14-7.  Kilmer was a quasi-starter for Washington before Jurgensen’s injury, and Scott Mitchell was only watching. 

Last night, for the third time in my life, I watched a future Hall of Famer leave the field with an Achilles tear.  The Jets wait until Tuesday to confirm it’s torn, but Achilles are never sprains. They either are torn or they are not. There is no in-between, and by the expression on Rodgers’ face after the injury, we didn’t need Lisa Salters or Adam Schefter to tell us. We knew it was devasting news for Rodgers and the Jets nation.  But much like Washington and Miami, the Jets found a way to win the game outright as a 2.5-point dog and seal their first win of the season. Getting through the game was easy. Now comes the hard part. 

The Jets beat Buffalo, with a huge help from Josh Allen, who is suddenly becoming a turnover-prone player, willing to take chances, believing he can make any play.  Last season, in the last eight games the Jets' defense forced two turnovers. Last night, they forced four—in part because Allen played recklessly, almost impatient football as if he understands the Bills are not as talented as the betting market or the fans believe.  

Yes, the Bills are a good solid team. Like most teams, they have weaknesses—notably in the offensive line where Allen was harassed and hit all night long.  The Bills don’t play with power on offense.  All their toughness comes from Allen as he believes he can make any play. Last night, after suffering a few of those hits, I wasn’t sure he was going to get off the ground.  Trust me, the pain of the loss to the Jets stings, but his body stings even more. 

The Jets set their season to win with Rodgers. Now he is gone, and they must win with Zach Wilson, who looked much like the player we saw last year.  Great arm, can make some throws, but wildly inconsistent and seemingly willing to make a bad play worse.  With time to prepare, the Jets’ opponents will be prepared for Wilson and take away his screen game, load the box against the run, and force Wilson and this bad Jets offensive line to carry the day.  As Bill Adee pointed out in his amazing morning newsletter, DK Sportsbook reopened the Week 2 Jets-Cowboys line at Dallas -7.5, up from the previous -3.5. The Jets' odds to win the AFC East moved to +600 from +27, and their Super Bowl odds rose from 16-1 to 60-1.  Rodgers mattered that much to the Jets, and Wilson is no lock to stay healthy behind that line.  As we learned from the past Hall of Famers getting hurt, their teams can rally, but unless the new quarterback can play as well, the team will struggle. 

The AFC East is up for grabs.  Miami looks amazing on offense, as Tyreek Hill continues to prove he is the best and most dangerous receiver in all of football.  Tua Tagovailoa is accurate with his throws, continues to look down the field, and even though he gets the ball out quickly, the receivers make down-the-field plays. He led the NFL in average completed air yards, which is a deeper analysis of yards per attempt, a key statistic for all quarterbacks and winning games.  

To beat Miami, teams will need to double Hill (what was Brandon Staley doing?) and rush Tua inside, pushing the guards back.  Unless you get into the paint on Tua, there is no way to alter the throw.  Opponents cannot beat them with an outside rush, or letting the corners cover on an island.  To slow down Miami, the defensive line must get into the paint (the area from the outside shoulders of both guards to the quarterback drop).

Buffalo looks beatable, as their defense doesn’t have the size or power to stop bigger teams.  The Jets pushed them back, gaining 172 yards on the ground.  Now, as most defensive coaches will claim when a big run occurs like Breece Hall's one, throw out that run and determine the average.  How can you throw out the big run?  It’s like a boxer saying, had he not been hit with that knockout punch he would have won the fight.  It’s ridiculous. Hall still averaged 4.4 yards per carry after the big run. The Jets didn’t get him the ball enough.  Expect that to change this week.   Last night proved the Bills seem vulnerable on defense without a great pass rush. And if Allen’s interception rate continues to increase and he struggles to gain protection (he was 12th in the NFL in time to throw this past weekend), he will continue to make mistakes. 

The Patriots played two rookie fourth-round picks at guard against the Eagles. Yet they still had ample opportunities to win the game as their defense held Philadelphia’s offense to their lowest yardage total in the last 27 games.  New England’s defensive front gave Philadelphia’s high-profile and talented line great problems.  The Patriots need to clean up their offense and not turn the ball over. Get Mac Jones to limit his mistakes, and by season’s end, they will be in the hunt. 

The East is wide open, and for all the teams, there will be a required regroup and re-evaluation of their status.   The Jets now have the toughest road ahead, in part because the design of their team was built around one player, and after three plays, that went out the window. 

My picks went 2-1 on Sunday, with Miami and the Jets winning and taking a beating on the Giants.  Check back on the Lombardi Line for all my selections on Sunday. 



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