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Friday, December 13, 2013
W2W4: New York Jets at Carolina Panthers

By Rich Cimini

It's Week 15 for the NFL. It's Elimination Week 1 for the New York Jets.

Holding the ninth position in the AFC playoff standings, the Jets (6-7) could be eliminated by the time they go to bed Monday night. A loss to the Carolina Panthers (9-4), coupled with a Baltimore Ravens victory over the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football, means the Jets are done for 2013.

Who are we kidding? If they lose to the Panthers, it's pretty much over.

The Jets are capable of pulling a major upset -- see New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints -- but the difference with this game is that it's on the road. And the Jets stink on the road, which might be putting it kindly. They're 1-5 with a minus-14 turnover margin, the worst in the league and tied for the worst in franchise history. That encompasses a lot of bad football, so ponder that stat for a moment. Hey, maybe they can set a new mark with a shovel-pass interception. That would be fitting, considering the locale.

Kickoff is 4:05 p.m. ET at Bank of America Stadium. The top storylines:

1. Statement game for Rex: If Woody Johnson and John Idzik are undecided on coach Rex Ryan's future, they'd have to be impressed by a win over one of the best teams in the league, especially on the road. The Jets are an 11-point underdog (not that we pay attention to that sort of thing), and you don't see too many double-digit point spreads in the NFL. They received a confidence boost last week, beating the Oakland Raiders, but questions remain about the team's mental toughness on the road. The Jets tend to shrink at the first sign of adversity, which explains why they've been outscored in their last three road games, 105-26. For the sake of his own job security, Ryan needs a spirited effort.

Geno Smith
Geno Smith will face one of the toughest defenses in the NFL when the Jets play the Panthers.
2. I, Geno: Geno Smith offered a rather candid evaluation of his recent slump, saying he was playing like a robot. He played well last week, but this will be an entirely different, and tougher, challenge.

Unlike the Raiders, the Panthers (No. 2 in total defense) don't blitz much at all. They send five or more rushers on only 26 percent of the dropbacks, 27th in the league, per ESPN Stats. They create havoc with a four-man rush, dropping seven into coverage. It's a fast-flow, high-energy defense, led by MLB Luke Kuechly. Those play-action rollouts that worked against the Raiders probably won't succeed against the Panthers. Coordinator Marty Mornhinweg needs to come up with a new wrinkle, perhaps some misdirection to exploit the Panthers' aggressiveness. This is Smith's most daunting assignment of the year.

3. Loose lips: The Jets unwittingly provided bulletin-board for the Panthers -- as if they needed it. Santonio Holmes' "weakest link" comment about the Panthers' secondary was accurate, but ill-advised. All he did was make things harder for his rookie quarterback, who could bear the brunt of the consequences.

Rookie defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson didn't take any shots at the Panthers, but his remark about how he'd be the No. 1 overall pick in a re-draft is sure to raise eyebrowns in the Panthers' locker room. They, too, have a promising rookie defensive tackle, Star Lotulelei, who is battling Richardson and Buffalo Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Richardson and Lotulelei were drafted 13th and 14th, respectively. Richardson has been more productive, but Lotulelei could have a bigger game, especially if he's facing struggling rookie left guard Brian Winters.

4. Ivory tower: The Jets' best player on offense is running back Chris Ivory, who has rushed for 524 yards since Week 7 -- fourth in the AFC over that span. To pull off an upset, Ivory needs a big game. Unlike the Jets, who haven't faced the Panthers since 2009, Ivory is familiar with them from his NFC South days as a member of the Saints. His career average in four games is 5.7 yards per carry, including a 127-yard performance in the 2011 finale. But the Panthers' defense has improved a lot since then. They own the league's top-ranked run defense. In fact, they've allowed only one 100-yard rush and four rushing touchdowns since Week 14 of 2012. Starting running backs are averaging only 44 yards per game in that span. Good luck, Mr. Ivory.

5. Where's the D?: The Jets have allowed 836 total yards in the last two games, the highest back-to-back total in the Ryan era. This is no time for Ryan's defense to fade, but it looks like they're running out of gas. They've been vulnerable against the run, and they can expect a heavy dose from the rush-oriented Panthers. They have a well-balanced, if not explosive offense. The key is containing quarterback Cam Newton, who is making better decisions than in previous years. The Jets should be able to get plenty of licks; Newton has been hit (throwing, running, sacked) more than any quarterback in the league -- 122 times, per ESPN Stats. Obviously, it hasn't affected him too much. The Jets' beleaguered secondary will take a hit if Antonio Cromartie (concussion) can't play.