Print and Go Back ESPN.com: BlogsColumns [Print without images]

Monday, December 5, 2011
Updated: December 6, 8:57 AM ET
Jets go from panic to playoff contender

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

Early in the season, the New York Jets suffered a three-game losing streak and were mired in locker-room turmoil. That was a nasty stretch, but the worst occurred recently in Denver, where they collapsed in the final minutes to Tim Tebow & Co.

It was a Rocky Mountain Low.

"There was a point after the Denver game where it did seem like the panic button had been pressed," guard Matt Slauson admitted Monday.

That 17-13 loss occurred nearly three weeks ago. Since then, they've gone from panic to playoff contender.

The Jets (7-5) are making one of their trademark, late-season runs, having won two straight to vault back into serious contention. They're in a four-way tie for the final wild-card spot in the AFC, and they have the easiest remaining schedule among those teams. Next up is a home game against the Kansas City Chiefs (5-7).

It's beginning to look a lot like 2009, the year the Jets snuck into the postseason and kept sneaking all the way to the first of two appearances in the AFC Championship Game.

"We've been there and done that," said Jets coach Rex Ryan, conceding "it looked really bad" after the Denver loss. "We always believe that if we can get in [the playoffs], we can do some damage, and that's what we plan on doing this year."

This late-season charge didn't seem possible on that night in Denver, where the Jets -- after 55 minutes of nearly flawless defensive football -- let Tebow be Tebow on a 95-yard touchdown drive. The Jets dropped to .500, with their Super Bowl aspirations seemingly vanishing into the thin air.

"Our three-game losing stretch was tough, but the feeling after the Denver game was more intense than that," Slauson said.

Defensive tackle Sione Pouha, a team captain, didn't seem comfortable with Slauson's use of the word "panic." Pouha preferred "urgency," the team's ability to sense the moment and do something about it.

"The more important thing is how you react to pushing the button," Pouha said. "Are you going to fold under pressure or be able to get yourselves ready to perform? … We've been able to not only respond with urgency, but we've also [showed] we're not a team that's going to fold under pressure."

But they could've.

In the past two games, wins over the Washington Redskins and Buffalo Bills, the Jets found themselves in situations eerily similar to what occurred in Denver -- clinging to a fourth-quarter lead, needing a stop from the defense. It's almost like they were being tested.

They stopped the Bills' last-minute drive, with some help from Stevie Johnson's dropped pass. Sometimes you get a little lucky. On Sunday, they stopped the Redskins -- no luck involved.

After a go-ahead touchdown catch by Santonio Holmes with 4:49 to play, the Jets forced a turnover on Aaron Maybin's strip sack and added two more touchdowns in a span of two minutes to close out the 34-19 victory.

Three of their past four wins were fourth-quarter comebacks. That's how they roll.

Naturally, Ryan was happy with the win, but he didn't seem particularly giddy. He knows they still have plenty of room for improvement. The offense was wildly inconsistent, there were communication issues between Mark Sanchez and the sideline, and the return units fumbled for the sixth time.

If the Jets had faced a better quarterback than Rex Grossman, it might have been a different outcome. They still have a lot to prove. After all, they're only 1-5 against teams with winning records, and their victories haven't been the prettiest.

"We think we can beat any team in this league," Ryan said. "Obviously, we've lost five games this year, so it's not always a fact. But we believe, going into every single game, we're going to win. We're capable of beating anybody in this league."

At one point, their biggest opponent was themselves. There was tension in the locker room, and it reached the boiling point when guard Brandon Moore and Holmes were sniping in public. Things have calmed down, although the crushing loss to the Broncos threatened to stir up some bad vibes.

"These last two games have been very positive," cornerback Darrelle Revis said. "We need to keep pushing the pedal and stay positive. Let's not get into the negativity of calling guys out or pointing people out. I think we're past that and moving forward."