At different points in the season, the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets were each in the driver's seat to win the AFC East. Now, it's possible neither team will make the playoffs.
The Jets try to bounce back from consecutive defeats and keep at least a share of the lead in the muddled East on Sunday when they host a Buffalo team that has seen its postseason hopes all but vanish.
The Jets (8-3) were riding high entering Thanksgiving weekend, alone atop the AFC East thanks to a five-game winning streak. The two most impressive wins during that run were the final two - 34-31 in overtime on Nov. 13 at five-time reigning division champion New England and 34-13 the following week at previously unbeaten Tennessee.
Since beating the Titans, the Jets have fallen back to the pack with a pair of surprising losses, 34-17 at home to Denver followed by last week's 24-14 defeat at San Francisco.
"I didn't expect us to lose the last two games," said Jets quarterback Brett Favre, who ranks fourth in the AFC with 20 touchdown passes but hasn't thrown one in his last nine quarters. "But I don't know if too many people expected us to win five straight. Maybe our team did. So, if we're able to win five straight and accept that, then we have to be willing to deal with these two games that we've lost and figure out a way to turn it around."
The good news for the Jets is that they still control their own destiny. New York is tied with Miami and the Patriots atop the East with three games to play, including a Dec. 28 home matchup with the Dolphins to conclude the regular season. If both the Jets and Patriots win out, New York would claim the East title by virtue of a better division record.
Next week's game at Seattle could pose a problem, as three of New York's five losses have come on the West Coast, but first up are the Bills (6-7).
"If we win out, we're in and that's the bottom line," right tackle Damien Woody said. "We've just got to do our part. We can't focus on what Miami does or what New England does. If we don't do our part, then it doesn't even matter after that. All that's important right now is Buffalo."
The Bills figured to be an important part of the AFC playoff picture after winning their first four games and five of their first six, but have since seen their once-promising season fall apart. Buffalo has dropped six of its last seven games, and has failed to find the end zone in either of the last two weeks - losing 10-3 to the 49ers and 16-3 to the Dolphins.
Now, the Bills have only a faint mathematical hope of reaching the playoffs for the first time this decade, and their management is growing restless with the production of coach Dick Jauron's club.
"We're extremely disappointed. It's unacceptable to be in this position after a 5-1 start," chief operating officer Russ Brandon said after last Sunday's loss to the Dolphins, which was a home game for the Bills but was played in Toronto. "This was a season in which we had to take the next step and nobody in this organization is happy."
Buffalo's lack of touchdowns in its last two losses hasn't been for a lack of opportunity. The Bills have driven inside the red zone five times in the last two weeks.
Instability at the quarterback position isn't helping Buffalo's cause. Starter Trent Edwards missed last week's loss due to a groin injury. He didn't practice Wednesday, and his status for Sunday remains uncertain.
J.P. Losman, who was the Bills' starter before losing his job to Edwards midway through last season, made his first start of 2008 against Miami with underwhelming results. The fifth-year veteran completed 13 of 27 passes for 123 yards with one interception and four sacks.
Marshawn Lynch gained only 31 yards on 13 carries last Sunday. Though he's had a solid season overall with 875 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, he was quick to direct blame towards himself after the most recent defeat.
"That is 13 more carries than zero, so therefore I had the opportunity. I just didn't capitalize on them," Lynch said. "I am the feature back here, and I don't feel as the feature back I have played like it."
New York's Thomas Jones is certainly playing up to his billing as the Jets' featured back. With 1,144 rushing yards in his second season with the team, he's already exceeded his 2007 total.
Jones' next rushing TD will be his 13th, and will set a new club record. He also has 14 total TDs this season, putting him in a five-way tie for the franchise mark in that category.
Jones ran for a score in the Jets' 26-17 win at Buffalo on Nov. 2, when he gained 69 yards on 12 carries. Lynch ran nine times in that contest for a career-low 16 yards.
The Bills had won three straight meetings between these division rivals prior to last month's loss.