If last week’s heart-stopping overtime victory in Foxborough was the last step in an exorcism, then yesterday’s landmark, franchise-altering 34-13 victory in Tennessee may well have been the first step in a coronation.
Not in the last twenty-five years have the Jets performed so remarkably in a game of such monumental proportions and when so few afforded them any realistic chance to win.
With just a slim one-game advantage over two divisional rivals, the Jets traveled to Nashville to face a 10-0 Tennessee Titans team featuring the league’s top-ranked defense and a raucous home crowd clearly energized at the prospect of an undefeated season. In such a dire circumstance, even a close loss would have gained the Jets a fair measure of respect in some circles, and a victory of any kind, even by the slightest of margins, would have been sufficient to reform the AFC playoff picture to an appreciable extent. But the significance of their startling 34-13 demolition of the Titans is nearly unquantifiable for a team that has too often saved its smallest efforts for the biggest stages. In this respect, yesterday’s walkover victory extends far beyond the realm of mere surprise and now stands as the preeminent black-swan event of this NFL season.
Yesterday’s victory is significant not merely for its palpable impact on the Jets’ divisional standing and playoff seeding but also as further evidence of both the team’s rapidly changing mindset and its ever-evolving utilization of personnel. With each passing game, these Jets bear less resemblance to the timid bunch previously known best for playing just well enough to lose. The team is shedding its former identity as a victim franchise, filling the psychological void created by 40 years of incompetence with the unbowed enthusiasm of Brett Favre, the Pro Bowl resume of Alan Faneca, the unyielding presence of Kris Jenkins, the electricity of Leon Washington and a growing belief in its own ability to prevail despite the name on its helmet.
In this NFL climate, confidence is key. This, after all, is 2008, not 1988 or even 1998. The talent disparities that separate the 32 NFL teams are no longer the chasms that divided winners and losers in years past. The talent margins of today’s leading teams are thinner than at any other point in league history. Expansion, the salary cap, and the free flow of information have revolutionized the NFL, transforming it from a highly polarized league dominated by a handful of elite teams to a more egalitarian environment wherein the fact of success or failure is more often traceable to cohesion, coaching, and execution than to any broad inequities in the quantum of talent possessed by the best and worst teams. Even now, it’s difficult to look at this Jets team and believe that its personnel is clearly or significantly superior either to that of the Patriot team it defeated last week or the Titans team that it destroyed yesterday afternoon.
Yesterday’s Jets were the same Jets who were embarrassed on Sunday night in San Diego, who lost so miserably to a horrid Raider team in Oakland, and who struggled so mightily to dispatch bottom-dwellers like the Bengals and Chiefs.
Their continuing on-field evolution shows that the Jets are fast becoming beneficiaries of the offseason moves that appeared to cause so much chaos and confusion in the season’s opening weeks. And it makes them virtually unique among the NFL’s elite in their capacity for further improvement even at this late stage. Nearly all the their rivals field more mature teams whose core players have played together longer and have thus come closer to realizing the full extent of their combined potential. The Jets, in contrast, may as yet be in the ascent. Each week, they seem to unfurl a new and previously unknown or underappreciated aspect of their team.
For instance, beyond what has already been said of yesterday’s resounding win, it should be noted that the game may very well have marked the birth of a bona fide New York star. Although he totaled just 43 yards on six catches, the rookie tight end Dustin Keller was as responsible for the Jets’ thunderous triumph as any player on their sideline. For the third straight week, Keller proved nearly indefensible, embarrassing the Titans’ defense not only by virtue of several key catches that helped the Jets turn the tide on a hostile crowd in the games opening minutes but also by drawing three critical interference penalties after he repeatedly torched the Titans’ clueless linebacking corps. The rookie’s sudden emergence after half a season of virtual irrelevance has had the practical effect of gift-wrapping a Pro Bowl tight end for an offense that was already beginning to rank among the NFL’s elite.
Critically, it is precisely this kind of late-season improvement that has marked the trajectory of so many Super Bowl teams over the last 10 years. Certainly, not all the teams that went on to win the Super Bowl were clear favorites in the season’s opening weeks. Many of them spent the first portion of the season negotiating their own trials and tribulations before peaking late in the year and when it counted most.
Whether the Jets will ultimately become one of those teams is far from decided. It’s only November. But there is no avoiding the reality that their rapid rise in recent weeks has stoked enthusiasms not seen here since 1998 and, before that, the Nixon administration. That alone is worth savoring as the Jets contemplate their renaissance win in Nashville and begin to set their eyes upon still greater prizes.