Even as quarterbacks are driving primary plot lines for the "Monday Night Football" opener, don't rule out Sauce becoming more than a side dish when the New York Jets welcome the Buffalo Bills for the high-stakes Week 1 finale.
Defensive Rookie of the Year Sauce Gardner, a rare All-Pro selection at cornerback in his first season, and the Jets' defense are positioned to be headliners and already have an established track record of mortalizing Bills quarterback Josh Allen.
"They're a pretty good group — really good group for that matter," Allen said. "They've got rushers that have motors, they sub those guys in and out so they're fresh. Their DBs are smart. They game-planned pretty well for us the last couple times we've played them and we'll have our hands full come Monday night."
Gardner made sure Allen's favorite target, wide receiver Stefon Diggs, didn't have his hands full in their two matchups in 2022. Allen had 147 passing yards in the Bills' 20-12 win on Dec. 11 — when Diggs was held to three receptions for 37 yards — and New York's defense sacked him eight times with two picks in those two games. Allen had three rushing TDs.
In the Nov. 6 meeting, Gardner intercepted Allen and broke up a late pass on fourth-and-21 that ended Buffalo's final drive and preserved the Jets' 20-17 win.
Diggs said the Bills are geared up to turn the page and test themselves against a rising AFC East challenger.
"That first game, I feel like it's also finding yourself, what kind of team you've got, figuring out your identity," Diggs said.
Allen was 9 years old when Aaron Rodgers was drafted by Green Bay. Allen said he's mimicked a lot of Rodgers' movements and looks up to him. Rodgers wants the Bills looking up at the Jets in the standings when the dust settles Monday.
At 39, Rodgers relocated for the first time in his career following a prolific run with the Packers. Unpacking Super Bowl and MVP credentials in New Jersey, Rodgers said he's grown comfortable in a new shade of green in part because of the level of talent around him.
"I think we're ready," Rodgers said. "I played in a great spot for 18 years. We had a great homefield advantage, place was always sold out. I'm expecting big crowd, a loud crowd. It's going to be electric — 'Monday Night Football' — last game of the first week. It will be a pretty special moment to take the field against a division rival and a great quarterback, really good football team. It will be a special environment to start off my career with the Jets."
Wide receiver Garrett Wilson was the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year and created a quick connection with Rodgers, who compared his new No. 17 — Wilson — to former Packers teammate and All-Pro wideout Davante Adams. The Jets also signed free agent Dalvin Cook to a one-year deal and added familiar Rodgers cronies Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb. There's depth here, too. New York wants to co-feature running back Breece Hall with Cook and brought in wide receiver Mecole Hardman from the Chiefs.
Expectations for the Jets haven't been this high since Joe Namath's guarantee.
"Having a guy like Aaron come in, the type of caliber player and person he is, he elevates everyone," left tackle Duane Brown said. "You have to elevate your standards and your level of play. And across the board, we have so much talent. It is probably the most talented team I have been on and a great mixture of youth and veteran leadership."
With safety Micah Hyde dealing with a back injury, the Bills might mark the Monday night return to the field of Damar Hamlin by pairing him with Jordan Poyer in the starting secondary. Hamlin, 25, made the 53-man roster as the latest awe-inspiring mile marker of his progress returning from on-field cardiac arrest at Cincinnati in January.
—Field Level Media