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Thursday, November 1, 2012
Playoffs?! Jets in the playoffs?!

By Rich Cimini
ESPNNewYork.com

Hold the obituary.

Despite a disappointing and humbling first half of the season, the New York Jets still have a chance to make a playoff push in the AFC. It sounds preposterous at 3-5, coming off a no-show performance, but the remainder of the schedule sets up wonderfully for a defensive revival.

Six of their eight remaining opponents are ranked 24th or lower in total offense, including the Seattle Seahawks (30th), whom they face next weekend. Did the NFL let Rex Ryan pick this schedule? Instead of Murderer's Row, they get a row of marshmallows.

If the Jets can't figure out a way to dominate the NFL's offensive doormats, it will be hard to ever take them seriously when they talk about their defensive prowess.

Antonio Cromartie
Will Antonio Cromartie and the Jets' defense be a big hit in the second half of the season?

Save for the final two drives in New England, the Jets' defense has improved in recent weeks. That arc should continue, which will allow them to play relatively low-scoring games. If the offense can rise to the level of average, and the special teams can avoid self-destruction, the Jets will contend into late December.

Maybe that's overly optimistic, considering the team's maddening inconsistency. But it's all they've got.

"I don't think there's any doubt we're getting better on defense," said Ryan, whose perennially top-five unit is ranked 16th overall.

If the defense doesn't rise, the Jets will fall -- hard.

Other things to watch for in the second half:

The quarterback drama. Clearly, Ryan doesn't believe Tim Tebow can save the season. If he did, he'd have replaced Mark Sanchez by now. They don't trust Tebow to throw out of the Wildcat, so there's no reason to think they'd hand him the keys to the entire offense.

If that day comes, it means they've given up on the season and Sanchez. That's why Ryan has to be absolutely sure before he pulls the trigger, because the decision will have long-lasting ramifications.

Simply put, Sanchez is playing for his job and his future. Unfortunately for him, his first opponent after the bye week could be nasty. The Seahawks are ranked fifth in total defense, and they're especially tough at home. Wouldn't it be ironic if Sanchez's starting tenure ends against his former college coach, Pete Carroll, who famously criticized him for leaving school early?

Potential dissension in the locker room. Ryan believes he cleaned up last season's mess, but that could be tested in the coming weeks. If the season gets away from them, and if the temperature of the quarterback controversy continues to rise, it will put a strain on team unity.

"It's not going to matter if we have Joe Namath back there, because if we don't execute, nothing is going to work," center Nick Mangold said. "We understand that, and I think having that in our minds will keep the finger pointing and those types of things away from our locker room."

Another possible concern: The Jets have 11 key contributors in the final year of their contract, so you may have some players putting self ahead of team if the season deteriorates.

Ryan took the bullet for last year's locker-room turmoil, admitting he lost the "pulse" of the team. If he's forced to issue another mea culpa, it won't sit well with owner Woody Johnson.

Fountain of Youth. Several young players will have the opportunity to shine. Wait, let's change that: They must shine in order for the Jets to make a playoff run.

Even though he's a fourth-year player, Sanchez is at the top of the list. Less proven players in this category are wide receiver Stephen Hill, defensive ends Quinton Coples and Muhammad Wilkerson, linebacker Demario Davis, cornerback Kyle Wilson, nose tackle Kenrick Ellis and running backs Joe McKnight and Bilal Powell.

Most of these guys are part of the foundation. If they develop a strong nucleus, it would make a non-playoff season more tolerable.

Biggest challenge on offense. Tony Sparano was hired because his philosophy -- a run-heavy, low-mistake attack -- meshes with Ryan's defensive-minded approach. Well, they need to start running and limiting mistakes to have any chance. They've scored 10 or fewer points in three games, tied for the most in the league.

The Jets have reached triple digits in rushing yards over the last three games -- baby steps. That needs to continue because this offense isn't equipped to throw 40 times a game. If it stalls, it will be a damning indictment of Sparano.

Biggest challenge on offense, Part II. The Jets won't play winning offensive football until they find a way to handle pressure on a consistent basis. They've faced five or more pass rushers on 39 percent of their passing downs, the second-highest rate in the league, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Obviously, no one respects their ability to make plays on the perimeter.

It's no coincidence that Sanchez's two most prolific passing days came against teams that rarely sent pressure, the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots. The Miami Dolphins sent five or more rushers on 25 of his 58 dropbacks last week, and you saw the result: The blitz pickup was terrible and Sanchez was rattled.

Now here's the problem: Their next two opponents, the Seahawks and St. Louis Rams, run pressure-oriented defenses. They have 21 sacks apiece, and the Cardinals, whom the Jets face in Week 12, have 26 sacks. If they don't solve the blitz, it'll get uglier for the Jets.

And they've already had enough ugly for one season.