Just one week after the New York Jets turned in their most complete performance of the season in a 26-17 win over the Buffalo Bills, some wondered whether the team was not ripe for yet another letdown against the seemingly rejuvenated St. Louis Rams, who had won two of its last four games after a dreadful 0-4 start. In truth, all the classic indicators were in place: an exuberant victory in the preceding week and a crucial game against the New England Patriots on the near horizon. The Jets, it seemed, were in for trouble. After all, this is the same team that squeaked past a winless Bengals team before collapsing against the Oakland Raiders and then allowing Chiefs quarterback Tyler Thigpen, he of the 42 passer rating, to push their season to the very brink of oblivion.
But that’s not how it turned out.
Instead, the Jets turned in a methodical, reassuringly businesslike 47-3 annihilation of a seemingly disinterested Rams team and, in the process, improved to an unlikely 6-3. Now, with seven games remaining, these Jets, already dead and buried by this time last season, are not simply contenders for a playoff spot or even their first division title since 2002. They are, by any fair measure, Super Bowl contenders.
Although this notion may invite some skepticism, either because the Jets were so pitiful only a year ago or even because they have played so unevenly through the first half of the season, you need only take stock of one increasingly apparent fact to know that it’s true: virtually none of the Jets’ conference rivals is any better than they are. Familiar AFC powers such as the Patriots, Steelers, Colts, and Chargers are but shells of their former selves, having been ravaged by age, injury, and managerial incompetence. What remains is a vast sea of mediocrity from which the Jets are as likely as any team to emerge. Only one team in the entire conference, the 9-0 Tennessee Titans, boasts a better record than do the Jets through week 10, and for all their dominance to date, the Titans are still quarterbacked by Kerry Collins. Yeah. Him.
Not in the last decade has this franchise had so few obstacles in its path or appeared more likely to overcome them. Through just nine games, they have already weathered several storms, including a demoralizing loss to a Bradyless Patriots team in week two’s home opener, the disastrous and utterly inexcusable loss to the Raiders, and a string of unnecessarily narrow victories against a spate of bottom-dwellers. They have been resilient and, in gross contrast to historical precedent, lucky.
Consider this about the Jets’ recent string of games. Just days before the Jets were set to square of with the then-winless Cincinnati Bengals, it was announced that the Bengals’ best player, quarterback Carson Palmer, would miss the game with a sore elbow. Backup Ryan Fitzpatrick played poorly in Palmer’s stead, and the Jets escaped with an uncomfortably close 26-14 win. The next week, as they prepared to play a seemingly improved Raider team, Oakland abruptly fired their head coach, replacing him with a man whom owner Al Davis claimed not to know. The next week, as the Jets began preparation for the Kansas City Chiefs, it was announced that the Chiefs’ star running back, Larry Johnson, would be suspended for a violation of team rules. In his place, the Chiefs started Kolby Smith, whom the Jets limited to 16 yards on 11 carries in what proved a death-defying 28-24 escape. Last week, the Jets traveled to Buffalo to face a Bills team without defensive end Aaron Schobel, who had previously manhandled the Jets, beating left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson for four sacks over their last four meetings. Schobel was replaced by Ryan Denney, and neither he nor the Bills as a whole managed a single sack as the Jets played what was their most complete football game to date, beating the division leaders at Orchard Park. And finally, as they got set for this week’s trap game against a Rams team that had won two of its last four contests, including convincing wins over the Redskins and Cowboys, the Jets received word that the Rams’ best player, pro bowler Stephen Jackson, would not dress for the game. His replacement, Antonio Pittman, rang up just 28 yards on 13 carries.
The point is that the Jets appear to have gotten the kind of breaks that almost every Super Bowl contender needs. And for a franchise that has spent the better part of the last 40 years as a monument to Murphy’s Law, this is a remarkable turn of events. And although they are yet a work in progress and just one of several teams in the running, they have already achieved the one thing for which every player and fan dreams: an opportunity to play critical football games in the second half of the season.
In three short days, the Jets will travel to Foxboro to play their most important regular-season game in 10 years. As it stands, although the Jets and Patriots are ostensibly tied atop the AFC East, the Patriots hold the all-important tiebreaker by virtue of their victory over the Jets in week two. A win would make the Jets the odds-on favorite to prevail in the division and, more importantly, a good bet to secure both the second seed in the conference standings and the critical first-round playoff bye that goes with it. A loss would not necessarily exclude the Jets from the playoff picture, but it would almost certainly foreclose the possibility of a division title, a first-round bye, and by implication, a deep playoff run. So make no mistake: the Jets must win this football game.
This is the watershed moment of the Mangini era. It’s put up or shut up. The Jets are a better team than the Patriots, and now is the time to prove it. By rights, the Jets shouldn’t be nearly as daunted by this game as they likely are. After all, the Patriots are a 6-3 team just like the Jets. But after going 1-11 against the Patriots over their last 12 meetings, the most relevant question, as it was in week two, is not whether the Jets are better than the Patriots they will face on the field but whether they are better than the Patriots they will face in the their heads.
We’ll know in three days.