No more excuses remain for Rex's Jets
Bottom line: Ryan's guarantees, upcoming schedule mean Gang can't miss playoffs
The questions were rolling in about Plaxico Burress' two days off, and whether they were really necessary with the team and its quarterback under duress, when Rex Ryan suddenly threw Mark Sanchez under the fuss.
It was early in the week when Ryan volunteered that his franchise player, or at least the kid drafted to be his franchise player, had received a demotion during practice for a second straight year, leaving the 40-something backup, Mark Brunell, to get a few reps with the varsity.
If Ryan didn't want to talk much about his decision to let Burress skip practice for some charity work over a four-day weekend, and he sure acted like he didn't, he had no problem feeding his quarterback to the news media beast. Ryan said he wanted to poke and prod Sanchez into playing at a higher level, just like last year, but then conceded he wouldn't turn to Brunell if things went south Sunday against the Buffalo Bills.
It was a silly little game Ryan was playing, even if it's already achieved 50 percent of the desired effect -- Sanchez is indeed angry at his boss. But Rex's contrived attempt to motivate his most important player aside, the coach of the 5-5 New York Jets understands this one hard fact about the 2011 season:
There's no excuse to miss the playoffs for the first time on his watch. None.
Even with their five conference losses leaving them in a fine tiebreaking mess, and even with 10 weeks' worth of inconsistent and indifferent play reducing their championship aims and promises to a practical joke, the Jets should still earn a third consecutive bid to the postseason tournament. They remain a safer bet than the 6-4 New York Giants to get there.
You can start and end with the schedule, which has become Rex's new BFF. The Bills have come undone in a spectacular way, and now they wish they weren't so quick to make Ryan Fitzpatrick a wealthy man. In MetLife Stadium, three weeks after a convincing victory at Buffalo, the Jets should end up with a two-foot putt.
Then it's on to the 3-7 Washington Redskins, an opponent with no quarterback and no clue, and the 4-6 Kansas City Chiefs, a team desperate enough to view Kyle Orton as its savior. Before ending the regular season in Miami, where the 3-8 Dolphins are damn proud they've played their way out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes, the Jets will see the Eagles and Giants.
If they split those two NFC East games -- certainly not too much to ask for -- the Jets should go 5-1 to finish at 10-6. "I feel pretty good about getting in [the playoffs] at 5-1," Ryan said, "but 6-0 sounds good."
More than anything, 6-0 sounds unrealistic. The Jets have done a lot of things this season, but inspiring people to believe they can rip off six straight victories isn't one of them.
Five and one? That's more like it, and 10 victories should get the Jets home. No matter how miserable Tim Tebow makes John Elway with his ridiculous talent for negating 55 minutes of unwatchable football with five minutes of endgame brilliance, the AFC West is favored to send only its division winner to the dance. Ditto for the AFC South.
Meanwhile, the AFC North might be strong enough to send three teams to the playoffs. Baltimore and Pittsburgh will make it, and 6-4 Cincinnati will offer the Jets' biggest challenge to the final wild-card berth.
Only the Bengals still need to play the Steelers, Texans and Ravens, meaning 9-7 is a distinct possibility. Either way, the North apparently isn't keeping Ryan up at night.
"I don't know how stocked that is," he said. "Maybe the records say that. I don't know. We'll see. I'm not afraid of any of those teams. There's a couple of real good teams in there. Obviously, Baltimore and Pittsburgh, but beyond that, I'll take our division over any of them."
Really? Outside of the defensively-challenged New England Patriots, the East looks softer than Rex's midsection, and the Jets are the chief reason why.
They were supposed to be championship material this time around. They had Pro Bowlers and big names at the skill positions and on the offensive line, and in Darrelle Revis they dressed the best defensive stopper this town has seen since Lawrence Taylor.
Sanchez entered his third season with as many road playoff victories (four) as any quarterback in NFL history, and with the expectation he would take the kind of leap Eli Manning took over the back end of 2007. The season was built around that expectation, precisely why the Jets are a .500 team.
"I never thought we'd be in this spot right now," Ryan said.
Nobody did, especially after the Jets coach Joe Willie'd a Super Bowl title. No, not many observers took Ryan seriously after he'd forecasted other parades and ring ceremonies that never came to be.
But a trip to the playoffs was seen as a death-and-taxes lock. The Jets started 2011 with so much talent, and so much self-generated hype behind their talent, that a failure to qualify for the tournament would almost match the Boston Red Sox's failure to qualify for October. Almost.
In the local, apples-to-apples comparison, the Giants actually have legitimate reasons to miss the playoffs. They still have to face the 7-3 New Orleans Saints, the 11-0 Green Bay Packers, the Jets, and the 7-4 Dallas Cowboys -- twice. The schedule is anything but Tom Coughlin's BFF.
So despite everything, the Jets represent New York's best hope for meaningful January games. They have the requisite talent and a series of opponents your average Touchdown Tech would normally hand pick for homecoming weekend.
The Jets should make it to 10-6, at least. If they fail, Ryan will likely rattle off a long list of excuses.
None will be worth any more than one of his no-money-back guarantees.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday, 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.