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SAM FARMER / ON THE NFL

New York Jets remain within striking distance of playoffs in AFC

Rex Ryan's team has had a bit of the edge knocked off it, but it controls its destiny. Mark Sanchez and Co. have a key test against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday.

December 15, 2011|Sam Farmer
  • New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez hands off to running back Shonn Greene during the Jets' victory over Kansas City on Sunday. The Jets have shown improvement after getting off to a rough start.
New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez hands off to running back Shonn Greene… (Jeff Zelevansky / Getty…)

From Florham Park, N.J. — For the past couple of years, we have heard a lot from the bombastic New York Jets about what they are and what they're capable of doing.

On Thursday, the loudest voice in the locker room disclosed what the Jets are not.

"I don't think we're a Super Bowl team," linebacker Bart Scott said. "Right now, we're not even a playoff team."

That might sound like blasphemy in Rex Ryan country, where the Lombardi Trophy isn't just mentioned but is promised — "I guarantee we'll win it this year," the coach said at the scouting combine in February — yet these Jets have had a bit of the edge knocked off them this season.

Still, they control their destiny. If they run the table in these final three weeks, they will secure at least the No. 6 seed in the AFC. That will require some strong play from their No. 6, quarterback Mark Sanchez, and knocking off Philadelphia, the New York Giants, and Miami.

The Jets (8-5) are perfectly capable of doing that, seeing as they typically have gotten better at the end of the season under Ryan, the Giants could have their playoff spot locked up when they play the Jets, and the Dolphins won't be overflowing with incentive in their finale.

But the real measuring stick for the Jets will be Sunday's game against the Eagles, a team similarly loaded with talent and likewise capable of laying an egg. Philadelphia should have banged-up Michael Vick and receiver Jeremy Maclin in the lineup, is coming off its most complete defensive effort of the season (a 26-10 victory at Miami), and has a wisp of hope of winning the NFC East (the Eagles must go 3-0; Cowboys and Giants 1-2 or worse).

As pleased as the Jets are that they're riding a three-game winning streak, they know that those triumphs came against downward-spiraling Buffalo, Washington with Rex Grossman and Kansas City with Tyler Palko.

Vick and the Eagles should be a real test, a way for the Jets to determine whether they truly belong in the upper echelon of teams, or if all those championship promises were just more hype by the Hudson.

This much we know: In each of their first two years under Ryan, the Jets surged at the end of the season and made it to the AFC championship game despite never playing host to a postseason contest. The Jets are loaded with experienced players who have come within one step of the NFL's biggest stage.

"I think there's benefit of going through the playoffs and gaining that experience," Ryan said. "Well, no team has won more playoff games than the New York Jets have over a two-year period — not Green Bay, not anybody — so that's going to help us. We have to get there first, obviously, but that could make us dangerous.

"The fact that we're the No. 1 red-zone scoring team in the league. The fact that we're built to win games in December and January with the way we attack people offensively.… And then our defense, we're starting to hit our stride."

Some of the Jets' biggest talkers have been more muted in recent weeks as the team has struggled to regain its equilibrium after the one-two punch of losses to New England and Denver over a five-day stretch in mid-November. The Denver loss was particularly deflating because the Jets played 55 minutes of outstanding defense, only to lose down the stretch when Tim Tebow directed a 95-yard scoring drive to steal the victory for the Broncos.

Two weeks later, Jets guard Matt Slauson confided: "There was a point after the Denver game there where it did seem like the panic button had been pressed a little bit."

So far, pushing that button has worked. Clearly, the Jets recognize the urgency of the situation and that they have the potential to do some damage in the playoffs with the way the AFC appears to be so wide open.

Denver leads the AFC West, and no one knows how far the Broncos can go without a consistent passing attack. Houston, which won the AFC South, has a rookie quarterback in T.J. Yates who's largely untested. New England has Tom Brady and a dazzling record of success, but also the league's last-ranked defense. Ben Roethlisberger is dealing with a bum left ankle, and Pittsburgh might have to start Charlie Batch in San Francisco on Monday.

As it stands, Baltimore looks like the most complete team in the conference, and the Ravens stomped the Jets in Week 4, 34-17, scoring three touchdowns off Sanchez turnovers. The Jets didn't have Pro Bowl center Nick Mangold in that game, so that played a part in their inability to handle the Ravens' rush.

In his first year as Jets coach, Ryan mistakenly thought his team was eliminated from the playoffs after a home loss to Atlanta in December 2009. He was barbecued for that in New York, considering the Jets were not only still alive but also went on to reach the postseason.

This time, it's some of his players who are managing their expectations, making sure they don't get too far ahead of themselves.

"We're still trying to play our best football," Scott said. "We're still trying to play completely as a team.… You just don't wake up and say, 'We're a Super Bowl team.'"

Coming from the chest-thumping Jets, that's growth.

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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