Monday, December 14, 2009

Jets prepare for playoff push

I haven't written on the Jets in a month, so it's about time I give them their due, especially after three straight wins. Beating the Panthers, Bills and Bucs is nothing to write home about, but in doing so the Jets have positioned themselves for a late-season run at a playoff spot at 7-6 through 14 weeks.

Since a 31-14 loss to New England the Jets defense has stiffened, allowing just 22 points in their last three games against below-average offenses. And with Mark Sanchez on the sideline with a knee injury stemming from his stubborn refusal to slide (even after working with Yankees manager Joe Girardi), it was Kellen Clemens leading the Jets to victory against Tampa Bay on Sunday.

Clemens didn't do much of anything, completing 12-of-23 passes for 111 yards, no touchdowns and, perhaps most importantly, no turnovers. He had numerous throws sail high and wide of open receivers and looked like a quarterback who hadn't seen significant game action since the 2007 season.

But Sanchez can learn from Clemens' performance. The Jets defense and running game were dominant against the Bucs, like both have been at times this season. They were so dominant that the Jets really didn't need to get much out of their passing game, outside of solid game management and limiting turnovers. And that is just what Clemens was able to do.

Stubborn Sanchez will likely return for next week's game with the Falcons, and he would be wise to follow Clemens' blueprint for success: Let the running game go to work and don't take unnecessary risks through the air. In his last four games, Sanchez has thrown 7 interceptions and just 3 touchdowns.

Even if Sanchez is able to limit the mistakes that have haunted him this season, the Jets still have an uphill climb in the AFC playoff picture. Winning the division is still an outside possibility, as New England sits just one game ahead of the Jets at 8-5 and Miami is also 7-6.

The problem with the division is both teams hold the tiebreaker over the Jets, as the Patriots have a better record within the division and the Dolphins beat New York twice. The Jets would need to win out, have Miami lose once (against Tennessee, Houston or Pittsburgh) and have New England lose twice (against Buffalo, Jacksonville and Houston).

A Wild Card berth still seems plausible as well, with 9 teams above 7-6 in the AFC. There are four at 7-6 (Dolphins, Jets, Jaguars, Ravens), and right now the Jets rank dead last among them due to tiebreakers. Miami beat both New York and Jacksonville and would fill the final playoff spot if the season ended today, while the Jets lost twice to Miami and once to Jacksonville (head-to-head record between teams tied is the tiebreaker between three or more teams).

The Ravens play Chicago, Pittsburgh and Oakland in their final three games, while the Jaguars play the Colts at home, followed by road games at New England and Cleveland. On paper, the Jets have the most difficult schedule of the 7-6 teams with the Falcons, Colts and Bengals to play.

The Colts have already clinched home-field advantage and, assuming they hand the Jags their seventh loss this weekend, should be in a position to sit regulars like Peyton Manning, Joseph Addai and Reggie Wayne against the Jets. And if Matt Ryan and Michael Turner are unable to play in next week's game, it's possible the Jets can get to 9-6 before a Week 17 showdown with Cincinnati.

At 9-4, the Bengals have a two-game division lead and play San Diego and Kansas City the next two weeks. That looks like at least 10-5 to me, and if Baltimore loses one of their next two Cincinnati will have the AFC North clinched before playing the Jets. And a loss to San Diego would mean they have no chance at a first-round bye, leading to the possibility of Carson Palmer, Cedric Benson and Chad Ochocinco seeing more time on the bench than the field in Week 17.

The teams that can help the Jets the most are Houston and Pittsburgh; If the Texans beat Miami in Week 16 and New England in Week 17, the Jets would need just one more Patriots loss and three wins of their own to win the AFC East. The Steelers can give the Patriots that second loss and/or take out Baltimore, giving the Jets either the division title or the sixth Wild Card spot if they won out (assuming the Colts beat Jacksonville).

While Denver is the other Wild Card team right now at 8-5, we've seen that team collapse before. The Broncos play divisional rivals in Kansas City and Oakland, sandwiched around a visit to Philadelphia, a potential recipe for a 1-2 finish.

There are just three weeks left in the NFL season and there is still a lot to be figured out in the AFC. Left for dead three weeks ago at 4-6, the Jets have stormed back and made things interesting. But so many things have to fall into place for New York to get to the playoffs that it's hard to give them more than a 20-25 percent chance of making it.

That's probably a better chance than anybody gave this team three weeks ago.

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