Can subtle Rex stifle Same Old Jets?
Loud coach actually excels with understated moves; now he must avoid annual dud
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- It comes every December, just like Christmas. There's always a "Same Old Jets" game, a logic-defying loss that makes the fan base want to run for the bridges.
There was the no-show against the Atlanta Falcons two years ago, which prompted Rex Ryan's premature surrender. There was last December's awful loss to the Miami Dolphins. We could go back to 2008 -- or back to the 1980s -- but there isn't enough space to recap every disaster.
For the third-straight year, the New York Jets begin the final quarter of the season in playoff position -- except this time, there's virtually no margin for error. At 7-5, with the wild-card contenders stacked up like club sandwiches (pardon the Parcells-ism), the Jets have to be clunker-proof. They have to win out, and that would take something unprecedented under Ryan.
Five things to watch
1. Mental mistakes. Despite a season-high 34 points last week, the offense committed several blunders -- wasted timeouts, senseless penalties, etc. Mark Sanchez & Co. need to clean up their act. This is Football 101 stuff. You expect it early in the season, not during a playoff push. Eventually, it'll come back to bite them.
2. Catch the ball.The Jets' punt- and kickoff-return units have committed a league-high six turnovers -- an average of one for every 15 "touches." The last thing they need to do is help the offensively challenged Chiefs score points by giving them short fields. Jim Leonhard replaces rookie Jeremy Kerley on punt returns.
3. Get Palko. QB Tyler Palko, starting for the injured Matt Cassel, has seven turnovers in three starts. The Chiefs have some playmakers (WR Dwayne Bowe and RB Dexter McCluster), but the lack of production from the QB position is killing them. Consider: The Jets scored almost as many points in the final five minutes against the Redskins (21) as the Chiefs have in their past three games (22).
4. Beware the D. The Chiefs have talent on all three levels of defense, certainly enough to cause problems for the Jets' inconsistent offense. The No. 1 priority is blocking pass-rusher Tamba Hali (eight sacks), an assignment that goes to LT D'Brickashaw Ferguson. The Jets could exploit the Chiefs' speed at linebacker with misdirection running plays.
5. TJ's homecoming. Thomas Jones isn't the same back who rushed for 1,400 yards in 2009 for the Jets, but he's a fierce competitor who would love to continue his reunion tour with another victory. (The Chiefs beat the Bears last week.) Jones, 33, is near the end, but it would be a mistake to underestimate him.
-- Rich Cimini
A six-game winning streak. It's possible but hardly a gimme.
Even though the Jets have the easiest remaining schedule among the AFC's four 7-5 teams -- they turn for home Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs -- it's going to take a mature, well-conditioned team to successfully navigate the final four games.
Based on their previous playoff experience, the Jets should be able to thrive in the crucible of must-win games, but they're still prone to maddening stretches of inconsistency. See the third quarter Sunday in Washington. They'd better be careful because they're on a tight rope, and the safety net has big holes.
"We've been down this road before," Ryan said. "There's a sense of urgency, without question, but there's a purpose, a focus. We know what's at stake. We have to win this game. With all the [playoff] scenarios in the world ... there's no scenario where we can lose an AFC game."
Ryan deserves some credit for getting the Jets back into the race, and he did it without making any bombshell changes. For an XL coach with an XXL personality, he's at his best with subtle moves.
Speak loudly, carry a small stick.
• Ryan's decision to bring consultant Tom Moore into the day-to-day operation shakes up the status quo on offense and sends the message that he'll do anything to get better, even if it creates the perception that he's unhappy with coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. If it ruffles a few feathers on the coaching staff, so be it. Sometimes tension can be productive.
• He told Schottenheimer last week to dust off the Wildcat package, a clever wrinkle that added juice to a stale rushing attack.
• Ryan riled up a slumping Mark Sanchez two weeks ago by sitting him for a few reps in practice. It was a non-threatening move because Ryan said he'd never bench his quarterback, but he evidently pushed the right button. Sanchez has five touchdown passes and one interception during the current two-game winning streak.
• He tweaked the overall defensive philosophy, gradually moving away from the blitz-heavy mentality. They've taken a conservative, coverage-based approach, especially the past two weeks.
Against the Redskins and Buffalo Bills, the Jets rushed four or fewer defenders on 80 percent of the pass plays, according to ESPN Stats & Information -- a radical departure from 2009 and 2010.
• Two months ago, Ryan made a seemingly innocuous personnel move that has paid huge dividends, re-signing pass-rusher Aaron Maybin. It came out of the blue, but Maybin's emergence has allowed them to be less reliant on risky, pressure-oriented schemes on defense.
Ryan didn't demote anyone and didn't do anything that can't be reversed, but he did enough tweaking to snap the team out of its funk and get it in position to make a run.
"It's like being a parent," said linebacker Bart Scott when describing Ryan's coaching style. "When you're a parent, you understand your children and how to parent certain people. He's in touch with the player, not just a player."
It doesn't make the Jets immune to a December meltdown. They have to start catching punts and stop making so many mental errors on offense, which are utterly inexcusable at this stage of the season. Maybe that's why Moore is now a mega-consultant, as Ryan called him.
Years ago, Parcells used to have a saying for this time of the season. He used to preach to his players, "Don't be the one to send the team home."
The Jets are at that stage, playing games that mean everything. After getting Tebowed in Denver, dropping to 5-5, Ryan declared, "The playoffs start now."
Two down, four to go.
The Jets might be able to overcome a loss to an NFC team, either to the Philadelphia Eagles or New York Giants, but it wouldn't be wise to go that route. Ordinarily, you'd feel comfortable with a 10-6 mark, but the Jets lose head-to-head tiebreakers with the Broncos and Oakland Raiders. That mediocre conference record (5-5) also could bite them.
They should beat the Chiefs, who imagine "no-trespassing" signs when they look at the end zone. With the immortal Tyler Palko leading them, they've scored one touchdown in the past three games.
"Quite honestly, we don't care if Len Dawson is back there," Ryan said. "They could have Otis Taylor, Buck Buchanan and anybody else. We know this is the Kansas City Chiefs, and we know we have to win."
There's no logical reason for the Jets to lose. Which should make you worry.