Commentary

It's time to show something

Jets and other teams hoping to contend need to start asserting themselves

Originally Published: November 10, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

For three years, New York Jets coach Rex Ryan keeps promising Super Bowls and touting his Jets as the best team in the AFC East.

Week 10 is turning out to be "Put Up or Shut Up Week." Ryan can back up his words if the Jets can beat the New England Patriots on Sunday night. Thanks to back-to-back losses for the Patriots -- a rarity -- the Jets can wrest control of the AFC East from the Pats if they win.

It can be argued the Jets have had a half-share of the AFC East since Ryan's arrival.

The Patriots have won the division title the past two years, but the Jets have made it to the AFC title game twice, going deeper into the playoffs than the Pats. A division title for the Jets can change a lot of things. For one, it would give them a chance for a home game or two in the playoffs. The Jets have had to win four games on the road to get to their two championship games.

But the pressure is on the Jets to win Sunday because if they don't, they probably won't be able to catch the Patriots, who have the league's easiest closing schedule (opponents' win percentage: .369). The three games after the Patriots game are winnable for the Jets. They play the Denver Broncos, the Buffalo Bills at home and the Washington Redskins. The Bills and the New York Giants are the Jets' only opponents, other than the Patriots, in the second half of the season with winning records.

After the Jets game, the Pats don't face a team with a winning record until the season finale against the Bills. Thanks in part to Rex Ryan, teams have figured ways to slow Tom Brady's offense. As they proved in last year's playoff victory in New England, the Jets can slow down the slower pass-catchers of the Patriots with a lot of man defenses and mixing in disguised schemes in which they drop eight defenders into coverage.

The Patriots have faced those types of defenses the past three weeks and have been held to 21 points or fewer for only the third time since Brady and Bill Belichick have been together. With a re-emphasis on running the football, the Jets are going back to the type of football team Ryan wants.

They like to "Ground and Pound" with their running attack and play good defense. Sunday is the chance to put up or shut up.

Here are the top 10 things to watch for in Week 10.

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
Kirby Lee/US PresswireJay Cutler and the Bears have quietly put together a 5-3 start.
1. Put up or shut up in Chicago: Despite the lightning-rod nature of Mike Martz's play calling and Jay Cutler's quarterbacking, the Bears have been doing well, slipping under the radar during a 5-3 start. Sunday's home game against the Detroit Lions is the chance to step up and be counted in the playoff race. The Lions won the first meeting 24-13. The Packers are 8-0, so although neither team may want to admit it, Chicago and Detroit are fighting for wild-card spots. It doesn't look like anyone can catch Green Bay in the NFC North. A Lions loss would give the Packers the chance to take a three-game lead in the division if they beat the Vikings on Monday night. Lovie Smith has the Bears' defense playing at a high level, but the Lions have the offensive weapons to wreck the Bears' Cover 2 scheme. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are Cover 2 busters. Offensively, the Bears are operating much smarter. They are keeping in blockers to max protect Cutler and prevent him from being pounded. He's been sacked only three times in the past three games.

2. Put up or shut up in Cincinnati: At 6-2, the Bengals have the record of a playoff team. Over the next four weeks, we'll find out whether the Bengals have the profile of a wild-card team or a contender to win the AFC North. In that span, the Bengals play two games against the Pittsburgh Steelers and one against the Baltimore Ravens. We will find out whether Andy Dalton, 6-2 as a starter, is a rookie operating at a high level beyond his experience. The Steelers have ruined rookie quarterbacks over the past four seasons. Former Bengals head coach Dick LeBeau, now the Steelers' defensive coordinator and the man who created the zone blitz, baffles rookie quarterbacks without having to blitz them too much. According to ESPN Stats & Information, rookie quarterbacks over the past four seasons are completing only 48.4 percent of their passes for 4.6 yards an attempt when the Steelers rush four or fewer defenders. During that span, the Steelers have intercepted eight passes from rookies and sacked quarterbacks on 10.9 percent of their drop backs.

3. Put up or shut up in Atlanta: The NFC South lead will be on the line when the New Orleans Saints face the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are struggling at 4-4, so the division is turning back into a two-team race. It will be interesting to see whether the Falcons change some of their pass-coverage schemes when facing Drew Brees. The Falcons like to use a lot of Cover 2, particularly on third downs. This year, opponents are converting 41.9 of their third downs against the Falcons' defense, and the Falcons' defense has an 82.1 passer rating against it. Thanks to the development of Jimmy Graham at tight end and Darren Sproles' catching passes out of the backfield, Brees can now destroy the Cover 2 defense. The Falcons might have to try some man-to-man. The Falcons have lost four of their past five games against the Saints, and Sean Payton is 8-2 against the Falcons. If the Falcons want to repeat as NFC South winners, they have to put up or shut up Sunday.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Howard Smith/US PresswireTony Romo and the Cowboys have been hurt by lackluster red zone performance.
4. Put up or shut up in Dallas: The Dallas Cowboys have underachieved at 4-4, but the schedule is set up for them to make a run at the NFC East lead. They host the Bills on Sunday and then have winnable games against the Redskins, Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals. If the Cowboys are a playoff team, they have to start showing it now. ESPN Stats & Information came up with a good number showing that the Cowboys' shotgun style of play in the red zone operates more like a popgun now. Tony Romo has completed only 10 of 25 passes out of the shotgun in the red zone and has been sacked three times. The Cowboys need better production in the red zone if they are going to be winners. They will have to operate the offense for the next few weeks without Miles Austin. But there will be no excuses for the Cowboys now. It's win or else.

5. Battle for the NFC No. 2 seed: Jim Harbaugh is the Coach of the Half Year for taking the 49ers to a 7-1 start. Their magic number for clinching the NFC West is four, meaning two wins by the 49ers and two losses by the Seattle Seahawks and Cardinals would allow the 49ers to clinch the division title as early as next week. With the NFC West title well in hand, the 49ers could concentrate on seeding. Although it might be hard to catch the Packers, the 49ers can put an early lock on the No. 2 seed if they can beat the 6-2 New York Giants on Sunday. The Giants, who upset the Patriots last week, are in the toughest part of their schedule. After the 49ers game, they face the Philadelphia Eagles, Saints and Packers. The Giants lead the NFC East by two games, but fans worry about second-half collapses. Since 2004, the Giants are 24-32 in the second halves of seasons, ranking 24th in the league. Although Aaron Rodgers is running away with MVP honors, Eli Manning has his name in the mix. He's had four fourth-quarter comebacks and eight fourth-quarter touchdown passes, and his 92.6 QBR rating since Week 6 is the best in football. It will be interesting to see how Alex Smith does in this playoff-like atmosphere. Smith is averaging only 183.4 passing yards but he has 10 touchdown passes and only two interceptions.

6. Can Haynesworth save the day? After losing defensive tackle Gerald McCoy for the season, the Bucs made the desperation move of claiming DT Albert Haynesworth after he was cut by the New England Patriots. Haynesworth had only five tackles in six games as a Patriot, but this is the first time since he's left Tennessee that he will be playing in a one-gap scheme that allows him to be a disruptive force. The Bucs need something. They are slow starters. Their offense hasn't had a first-quarter touchdown in eight games this season, and the youngest team in football is acting a little immature. Offensive mistakes are increasing. Josh Freeman is occasionally having his young receivers line up wrong. The Texans come in with the league's most dominating running attack. Getting Haynesworth may prevent the Bucs from being bullied.

7. A college game at Arrowhead: Chiefs fans and their tailgate barbecues usually give a collegiate atmosphere to Chiefs games. On Sunday, the presence of Tim Tebow makes this game less like a Broncos-Chiefs game and more like a Nebraska-Kansas game. Since giving Tebow the starting job, coach John Fox is turning the Broncos' offense into the one Tebow ran at Florida. He's letting Tebow do more read-options in which Tebow is the main runner and Willis McGahee or Knowshon Moreno are the options. Though it hasn't been pretty, and Tebow gets more runs than completions, the Broncos have won two of the past three games, pretty much putting them out of the Andrew Luck sweepstakes. The Broncos are trying to see whether or not the Tebow-type offense will work. A couple of years ago, the Chiefs tried Tyler Thigpen in the Pistol formation, but too many losses scrapped that concept. We'll see how it goes for the Broncos.

[+] EnlargeKevin Kolb
AP Photo/Ross D. FranklinSo far, the Kevin Kolb trade hasn't worked out as well as expected for the two teams involved.
8. Who's the winner in the Kolb trade? Though the price was high, the Cardinals believed they found their franchise quarterback when they acquired QB Kevin Kolb from the Eagles for a second-round pick and cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Though the two teams considered this a win-win move, it's been lose-lose for both franchises. Sunday's game in Philadelphia will be a chance for both teams to compare notes. Kolb was 1-6 during his first seven starts and was bailing out of the pocket too quickly. He is unlikely to play in Sunday's game against the Eagles because of a turf toe and a mid-foot sprain. DRC, meanwhile, hasn't felt comfortable in a lot of the zone defenses the Eagles have put him in. Though he hasn't given up a touchdown, he's had 13 passes completed on him for 191 yards and at times has looked lost.

9. How the NFC West affects other divisions: The Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams are 1-7 against NFC East teams. They are 0-6 against the AFC North. If that trend continues, it affects playoff races in both conferences. The Ravens travel cross-country to face the Seahawks, who, if they lose, could match the Rams at 0-4 against the AFC North. The Ravens and Steelers are each 2-0 against the NFC West and are counting on the four-game boost from this division. The Eagles hope to keep their playoff hopes alive when they play the 2-6 Cardinals. They are counting on winning three games against the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals. At 3-5, the Browns aren't thinking playoffs but the next two weeks could get them back to .500. They host the 1-7 Rams and the 2-6 Jaguars over the next two weeks.

10. Rookie quarterback watch: With the exception of Blaine Gabbert, rookie quarterbacks Andy Dalton, Christian Ponder and Cam Newton have made quick conversions into their roles as NFL quarterbacks. Over the second half of the season, we'll see whether Ponder and Newton can turn their successes throwing the ball into victories. The Panthers host the Tennessee Titans, who at 4-4 are trying to stay in the playoff race. Newton is averaging close to 300 yards a game passing and looks like a lock for Rookie of the Year. Ponder makes a Monday night appearance against the Green Bay Packers. Ponder's first start was against the Packers, and he threw for 219 yards and two touchdowns. Meanwhile, Gabbert's game against the Colts is interesting in the sense that if the Colts can't beat the Jags, Indianapolis may not win a game this season. Colts coach Jim Caldwell needs to get a victory to calm frustrated owner Jim Irsay, who is growing tired of the losses.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer