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With three games to go, the New York Jets already have doubled their win total from last year.
But if they don't make the playoffs, their season will be considered a failure.
|Kyle Terada/US Presswire|
|After a five-game winning streak, Eric Mangini and the Jets have dropped their last two games.|
Turnaround, schmurnaround. The Jets established an awesome standard over a torrid seven-game stretch, but two disconcerting losses have them on the cusp of panic heading into Sunday's game against the Buffalo Bills at the Meadowlands.
Super Bowl proclamations have given way to renewed skepticism about Jets management and head coach Eric Mangini. Fans are expressing sentimental regret over Chad Pennington's departure.
"I don't want to say I'm hitting the panic button," said Jets linebacker and captain David Bowens, "but the leaders need to step up."
The Jets' front office spent lavishly on free agents in hopes of barging into a New York sports consciousness so occupied by the Giants and Yankees.
Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum executed daring trades for quarterback Brett Favre and nose tackle Kris Jenkins, each transforming the dynamic of the offense and defense.
But an AFC East title? A Super Bowl?
Although that might have been the intention, nobody thought it actually could happen.
Then the Jets ripped off five straight wins and took six out of seven. They popped the defending AFC champion New England Patriots and undefeated Tennessee Titans -- perhaps the most significant back-to-back regular-season road wins in franchise history.
The Jets won five in a row, six of seven and hadn't lost in regulation time since September.
Expectations went from "Get outta here" to "Hey, now, wait a minute ..."
Jets fans were introduced to the bold possibilities. Their team was referenced in reverential tones by every NFL commentator on the planet. A mouth-watering Jets-Giants dream Super Bowl matchup became the hot topic.
And in the span of two weeks the Jets and their fans were swatted back to earth.
Now they can't figure out what has gone wrong.
Increased expectations bring exaggerated pressure. Pundits already are wondering who will replace Mangini and Favre if the Jets don't make the playoffs.
"Like the balloons at the Macy's parade on Thanksgiving, maybe they got inflated too much," said Marty Lyons, the team's radio analyst and member of its famed New York Sack Exchange defensive line of the 1980s. "But whatever it is, it's crunch time.
"You put yourself in position with all those early wins to allow yourself to stub your toe once. You're not going to get any more chances to stub your toes."
The Jets have slipped back into a three-way tie for first place in the AFC East, a division that increasingly looks like it will send only one representative to the playoffs.
A wild-card option appears less likely by the week because the Indianapolis Colts and Baltimore Ravens are playing so well.
The Jets, who were No. 3 in ESPN.com's power rankings after the Titans victory, now are 13th.
"If there hadn't been a sense of urgency, there certainly will be now," Mangini said.
The Jets control their own destiny -- albeit barely.
They are 8-5, same as Pennington's Miami Dolphins and the injury-raked Patriots, teams that have been more methodical in obtaining their records and haven't engendered a win-or-else hysteria.
New York holds the tiebreaker over New England and hosts Miami in the Dec. 28 regular-season finale.
Problem is, consecutive losses to teams the Jets should've handled have them grasping.
|AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez|
|Jets quarterback Brett Favre hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in the last two games.|
"The past couple weeks we haven't played the brand that we put out there the five previous weeks," Jets right tackle Damien Woody said. "We haven't played Jets football."
A week after the Jets convinced everyone it was OK to consider them contenders by beating the Titans, the Denver Broncos -- a wacky team that struggles mightily against the NFL's dregs -- dominated the Jets, 34-17, in the Meadowlands.
The Jets surrendered 484 total yards and let Peyton Hillis become the first back to rush for more than 100 yards against them.
Jets receiver Laveranues Coles said after that game, "I will tell you what. It's a wake-up call. ... It's not like our season is over because of one game, but I think it gets us to realize that we can be smacked on the butt ourselves. At this point we need to wake up."
The dysfunctional San Francisco 49ers handled the Jets almost as easily in Week 14. The score was 24-14, but the Jets held the ball for only 20:11. Stud running back Thomas Jones had 10 carries. Favre threw for 137 yards, no touchdowns and an interception. They converted one of their 10 third-down attempts.
"If I was a player or I was a coach," Lyons said, "I'd go back and make them look at the Tennessee game so
they can realize that 'This is who I was and what I was playing like two weeks ago.'
"What's happened the past two weeks is disappointing and you can't put your finger on it, but good coaches can create a vision. You have a coach that keeps working them, telling them who they are and this is what it's all about."
Answers must surface immediately.
"Right now, we have the option of being at home barbecuing or playing in those games," Bowens said.
Favre has gone consecutive games without a touchdown pass for the fifth time in his career. Three of the other four instances also happened in December.
Opponents sacked Favre once in Weeks 8, 9 and 10 combined. In the four games since, he has been sacked 10 times.
Mangini was asked Monday if the long season is wearing on Favre's 39-year-old body.
"It's a long season for everybody, not just for Brett," Mangini replied, essentially dodging the question. "We put in so much time, effort and work to get to this point that it's really such a short season right now. Everybody across the league is dealing with the same exact issues that we're dealing with. It's a level playing field from that perspective."
Favre's fade down the homestretch has led many Jets fans to wonder if their team made the right choice when they traded for him and cut Pennington in training camp.
The Dolphins went 1-15 last year. With Pennington running their offense, they are tied with the Jets but have significantly more momentum. The Dolphins have won six of their past seven games.
The Dolphins' offense has committed 10 turnovers all year, half of the proud franchise's record. Favre has thrown 15 interceptions and lost two fumbles.
What a delicious showdown it will be if the Jets and Dolphins meet to decide the AFC East title in the regular-season finale.
The Jets defeated the Dolphins, 20-14, in the season opener, but they did so with a freak touchdown that turned out to be the difference. The Jets went for it on fourth-and-13 because their kicker, Mike Nugent, had hurt himself. Favre threw a 22-yard touchdown lob to Chansi Stuckey.
The Jets probably will have to win each of their next two games to set up that grudge rematch.
The sad-sack Bills visit the Meadowlands in Week 15. Then the Jets travel across the country to play the Seattle Seahawks. The Jets are 0-3 on the West Coast this year.
"Guys are focused, man," Woody said. "Everybody knows what's at stake. We know what we have to do.
"Obviously, guys are disappointed losing back-to-back games. But what guys do realize is we still control our own division. All we have to do is win. There's no magic to it. If we take care of our business, we win the division. It's a three-game season."