EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers and the New York Jets have worked all spring and summer to get to this moment.
So has Damar Hamlin.
When the Jets square off against the Buffalo Bills on “Monday Night Football” at MetLife Stadium, it will mark the next step of two fascinating journeys. In front of a national TV audience and on the 22nd anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Rodgers will make his highly anticipated regular-season debut for the Jets, who acquired the four-time NFL MVP from the Green Bay Packers in April.
“One thing has happened almost every single day and it just reminds me how I’m in the right place and where I’m supposed to be,” Rodgers said. “And I’m really just loving what this opportunity has given me.”
Meanwhile, Hamlin is expected to take the field in a regular-season game for the first time since going into cardiac arrest and being resuscitated on the field in Cincinnati on Jan. 2.
“Just incredible, amazing,” coach Sean McDermott said of Hamlin's return. “All the words, adjectives you’d use to describe something as unique as what he’s been through.”
Rodgers went from being “90% retiring” in February before he went into a darkness retreat in Oregon to reflect on his future to wanting to play more — and declaring he wanted it to be with the Jets. After a few months of speculation and negotiations, New York pulled off the trade to bring aboard the 39-year-old quarterback.
And the expectations for a team that has the NFL's longest active playoff drought at 12 straight seasons soared. All the way to the point some prognosticators have mentioned the Jets as Super Bowl contenders — something the team won't shy away from.
“Of course, it’s better than the alternative,” coach Robert Saleh said. “You work hard to be able to put yourself in position to have a realistic shot at something. Now with that said, we haven’t done anything. We still have to go do it.”
For Hamlin, reaching this point is already a huge victory. He went from a near-death experience that garnered support, from prayers and millions of dollars in donations to his Chasing M's Foundation, to returning to the game and playing in three exhibitions this summer.
Hamlin made the Bills' roster as a backup — after many doubted he would be able to take the field again.
“Every time I see him put his helmet on and he goes out there between the lines,” fellow safety and teammate Jordan Poyer said, “I know it gives me a little bit of juice and inspiration to go out there and play football.”
The game also will mark the Jets debut of running back Dalvin Cook, who was signed by New York during training camp to bolster its backfield behind Rodgers.
Cook — whose brother James will be on the other sideline — spent his first six seasons with Minnesota and ran for at least 1,100 yards the last four years, but he was a salary cap cut this offseason.
Cook had offseason shoulder surgery and started practicing with the Jets only right before the season. But he feels healthy and prepared to give New York a 1-2 punch at running back in new coordinator Nathaniel Hackett's offense with Breece Hall, who's returning from a knee injury that cut short his promising rookie season.
“It's a system I'm really familiar with,” Cook said, “so I think we could be explosive this year.”
SAFETIES IN NUMBERS
Poyer and fellow safety Micah Hyde were among the first free agents the Bills signed March 2017 in McDermott’s first season as coach. And the two remain what has been essentially an inseparable tandem preparing to open their seventh season together as starters, something few other safety duos have done.
Since the NFL merger, the only other safety tandem to start seven or more consecutive seasons is the Steelers' Carnell Lake and Darren Perry (1992-98). Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark played together for eight straight seasons (2006-2013), though Clark missed the 2012 opener in Denver because he couldn’t play at a high altitude.
“It’s like half the time we already know what each other is going to be saying, or we’re saying the same thing at the same time,” Poyer said of how in sync they are.
Hyde reclaimed his starting job after missing much of last season while recovering from a neck injury. Poyer’s future in Buffalo was uncertain before he re-signed with the Bills.
BIG MEN BOUNCEBACK
The biggest question mark for the Jets might be the big boys up front on offense, specifically left tackle Duane Brown and right tackle Mekhi Becton.
Brown missed all of training camp while recovering from offseason shoulder surgery to fix an injury he played through most of last year. Meanwhile, Becton was sidelined most of the last two seasons following two knee injuries — and has never played right tackle in a regular-season game.
MANNING THE MIDDLE
Terrel Bernard will start at middle linebacker for the Bills, for the moment settling what was an offseason-long competition to replace Tremaine Edmunds, who departed in free agency.
Bernard earned the nod ahead of Tyrel Dodson despite missing all three preseason games with a hamstring injury. That means Bernard, a 2022 third-round pick out of Baylor, will be responsible for calling plays in the defensive huddle after having them communicated to him in the huddle.
McDermott on several occasions stressed that Dodson will have to take it “one play at a time,” an indication that he still has much to prove to earn the job on a full-time basis.
AP Sports Writer John Wawrow in Orchard Park, New York, contributed.
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