Can the Jets soar to the playoffs?
The first track the Jets have to the postseason is through winning the AFC East. Of the 9 games remaining on the Jets’ schedule, only two are against teams above .500 (Cincinnati in Week 8 and New Orleans in Week 9). The Patriots, currently ahead of the Jets by 1 game, face only 1 opponent above .500 (Denver in Week 12) the rest of the way. The path to a division crown is an upward one, but the Jets do have a few things working in their favor. Tom Brady has not looked like himself this season, and is currently posting career lows in completion percentage (55.4%) and QB rating (75.3). The Patriots are also nursing injuries on both sides of the ball – top wideout Danny Amendola and top corner Aqib Talib did not play in Week 7 and have murky timetables for their returns. Starting linebacker Jerod Mayo and Pro Bowl nose tackle Vince Wilfork are done for the year. If the Jets can manage an upset or two, they can make things very interesting with the Patriots down the stretch. The two teams also have an identical division record (2-1), which would be the tiebreaker if they finished with the same record overall.
The second route toward a playoff run comes via the wildcard. Assuming that Denver (6-1) and Kansas City (7-0) continue their winning ways, one will win the AFC West and the other will lock up the first wildcard spot. Judging from the current standings, the race for the second wildcard spot is wide open. The Jets and Chargers lead the way at 4-3, followed by Miami at 3-3, and then the Dolphins, Ravens, Browns, and Titans all at 3-4. The second half schedule is absolutely brutal for the Chargers – they have to face both the Broncos and Chiefs twice. Philip Rivers has returned to form this season, but it is very hard to see him leading the Chargers successfully through that stretch. Putting them aside, the Jets have a 1 game lead on the rest of the pack, and again, if they can build on their early momentum, earning the second wildcard spot is within reach.
Coach Rex Ryan has used his reinvented defense and surprising rookie quarterback to turn the Jets from a laughingstock to a viable playoff contender, undoubtedly saving his job in the process. The Jets defense is surrendering the second fewest rushing yards in the league per game, and the fourth fewest total yards per game. Specifically, the Jets defensive line has looked nothing short of dominant. For years under Ryan, the Jets relied on exotic blitzes and Darrelle Revis cutting the field in half to generate pressure on the quarterback. This season, the Jets defensive line is controlling the point of attack – stuffing the run and getting to the quarterback on a consistent basis. Sack totals have been paltry under Ryan, but the Jets currently have the third most sacks in the NFL. Defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (2011 first round pick) could be the Jets’ best player. Fellow youngsters Sheldon Richardson, Quinton Coples, and Demario Davis have also impressed with their stellar play. All under the age of 25, it could be the makings of a core that could wreak havoc for years to come.
If there is one player who is the face of the Jet turnaround, there is no doubt it is Geno Smith. After struggling in the preseason and winning the starting job by default due to Mark Sanchez’ season ending shoulder surgery, Smith has wooed Jets fans with his big arm, surprising rushing ability, and exemplary poise. He is still a rookie, and has looked the part at times - imploding in his first matchup against the Patriots (3 INTs in the 4th quarter) and getting visibly rattled in Tennessee. Nevertheless, Smith’s highs have outshined his lows. In every one of the Jets’ four wins, Smith has led a game winning drive in the 4th quarter or overtime, becoming the first quarterback since the 1970 merger to lead 4 such drives in his first 7 career games. He is a fearless gunslinger with confidence to spare. It works against him sometimes, but it's a breath of fresh air to the east-and-west play of Mark Sanchez.
Like all teams in the NFL, the Jets are not without shortcomings. On defense, the secondary is a point of weakness. Antonio Cromartie has not looked like the Pro Bowl corner he was last season, and first round pick Dee Milliner has been a disappointment thus far. On offense, Smith has shown he is prone to an untimely turnover. Also, the Jets are sorely lacking in playmakers at the wide receiver and running back positions. But the fact still remains that the route to the playoffs is laid out in front of them, clear as day. The playoffs are often called the second season, and these Jets would love nothing more than to get there and shock the world one more time.