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Friday, November 18, 2011
Updated: November 19, 3:07 PM ET
Jets heading in the wrong direction

By Rich Cimini

As they watched Tim Tebow orchestrate one of the craziest, most dramatic scoring drives in recent memory, the New York Jets got a look at what they used to be:

Flawed, but tenacious.

Maddening, but resourceful.

The Jets aren't that team anymore. They are a .500 team, going nowhere, clinging to the notion that they can turn around the season because they've done it before. That's what Rex Ryan was selling Friday, sounding like he was trying to convince skeptics -- maybe even himself -- they will make another playoff run.

"Every year we go through it," he said, rationalizing the current slump and claiming his teams "get better and better and better" as the season gets older.

First of all, that's a half-truth -- Ryan's post-Dec. 1 record is 6-4 -- but we'll let him run with that because, after all, they've won four playoff games in two years. But here's the difference between then and now:

The current Jets don't have anything to lean on.

In 2009 and 2010, they survived Mark Sanchez's growing pains and other occasional lapses because they had two pillars holding up the entire building -- the defense and the offensive line. In their darkest hours, those units provided stability, a way out, a starting point for Ryan and his staff to scheme a crisis-management plan.

They can't go there anymore. The offensive line is one of the problems -- Wayne Hunter must be having Von Miller nightmares -- and the defense fluctuates from week to week, going from scary good to scary bad. On Thursday night, it was both, letting the Denver Broncos go 95 yards with a quarterback that can't throw.

And, of course, Sanchez still is dealing with his issues, which no longer can be camouflaged because of everything going on around him.

"Every area of our team has issues," said Ryan, lumping the once-dynamic special teams into the mess of mediocrity.

Ryan admitted he didn't think he'd be fixing this many leaks so late in the season, but the ever-optimistic coach promised to get it right. He praised the team's work ethic and vowed, "I've said this before: The best we'll play is at the end of the year."

The best thing they have going for them is a relatively soft schedule, a six-pack of opponents ranging from pitiful (Washington Redskins) to dysfunctional (Philadelphia Eagles) to hopeless (Miami Dolphins).

Even the Jets, with all their warts, should be able to slog their way through to at least Week 16, when they face the New York Giants in what could be the final-nail game in the Jets' season.

Lose that game, and the Giants will get the dog (the newly created MetLife Snoopy Trophy); the Jets will be the dog.

It's premature to write off the Jets, mostly because parity prevents premature elimination, but it's going to take a near-miracle run to make the playoffs. They will have to win at least five of six, getting to 10 wins, but even that might not do the trick. With a 4-5 conference record, they're going to be at a serious disadvantage in tiebreakers.

But, again, the issue isn't the destination. The question is, how are they going to get there?

The offensive line showed signs of improving after a slow start, with the return of center Nick Mangold in Week 5 and the re-commitment to Ground & Pound, but the running game has regressed and the line has allowed eight sacks in the last two games. Sanchez isn't going to get better until the line gets better.

Clearly, Wayne Hunter isn't a long-term answer at right tackle, but this is what happens when you try to prop up a career backup. They had to do it because former second-round pick Vladimir Ducasse, who was supposed to be the guy, hasn't panned out.

Ryan's pride and joy, the defense, still is good enough to keep them close in most games, especially when the opposing quarterback isn't named Brady, but let's not fool ourselves here. The defense isn't money the way it used to be money.

How they let Tebow take control in the final minutes is beyond explanation. Yeah, the defense was fantastic for 55 minutes, but it failed to finish the job. There was little margin for error, thanks to a struggling offense, but there are going to be games when the defense needs to be almost perfect. It wasn't.

A year ago, the Jets pulled out games like that on the road, making the clutch plays. Remember that Tebow-like stretch, when they won four times in the final seconds? What happened to that team?

Say hello to the S-T-E-J -- a team going backward.