The New York Jets Playoff Chances Are Surprisingly Real

When the NFL season began in September, it was considered a virtual guarantee that the New York Jets would be a colossal joke. Rex Ryan was in the final year of his contract and was perceived (and perhaps still may be) a lame-duck head coach, there was huge uncertainty at quarterback and obvious talent deficiencies throughout the lineup.

Yet here we are with seven weeks left and the Jets are 5-4 and in the lead for the AFC’s final playoff berth. TheSportsNotebook will look at the New York Jets playoff chances and see if an improbable January game is in their future.

Ryan has gotten his team to this point because they have a cohesive identity and it’s built around running the football and playing defense. The Jets are ranked 9th in the NFL in rush yards per attempt, and they rank even higher (7th) in total attempts.

It’s been a team effort in the backfield, with the emergence of Chris Powell–100-yard games in big wins over the New England Patriots and New Orleans Saints–being the biggest bright spot.

New York is even better when the conversation flips to defending the run, where they are the game’s best in yards-per-attempt allowed. Nor has this come at the expense of pass defense, where they rank in the league’s upper half in yards-per-pass allowed.

What’s hurting the Jets’ defense right now is the propensity of the offense to turn the ball over. The Jets are near the bottom of the league in throwing interceptions. That’s not unsurprising, with quarterback Geno Smith being a rookie, and one who didn’t become the starter until Mark Sanchez’ injury at the end of the preseason.

If Smith can cut down on the mistakes in the final seven weeks, the Jets’ defense bottom line–they’re currently stuck on 22nd in the league in points allowed–will rise to a level proportionate to how well they stop both the run and the pass.

Furthermore, there’s no reason for Smith to take unnecessary chances–this team wins by running the ball and playing defense and as Alex Smith can tell you in Kansas City, all the quarterback needs to do is get out of the way. Geno can play it safe in the pocket, make a few plays with his feet and let the rest of his team carry the load. The continued game experience the Jets’ rookie is getting make it reasonable to expect improvement.

New York trails New England by two games in the AFC East, and one of the conference’s two wild-card berths is going to go to the Kansas City/Denver runner-up in the AFC West. That shifts the conversation, at least for now, to the second and final wild-card berth.

The Jets have their share of flaws, some of which we’ve touched on here, but also include an inability to generate interceptions on the defensive side and poor pass protection. But we have to keep in mind who they’re competing against, and that would be the following…

Cleveland (4-5): A team with the same problems as the Jets, and is also down to a journeyman quarterback and lacks New York’s quality running game.

Baltimore (4-5): They have to be taken seriously because of their past accomplishments, but there are huge problems on the offensive line, meaning they can do nothing well when they have the football. There’s no Ray Lewis retirement inspiration to lift them this season.

Tennessee (4-5): At this time last week, I liked the Titans. Then they lost at home to Jacksonville and lost quarterback Jake Locker for the year, putting the season back in the hands of Ryan Fitzpatrick, who remains a four-interception game waiting to happen.

San Diego (4-5): The best offense of any of the contenders, but a vulnerable defense. And more important, the Chargers still play Kansas City twice and go to Denver. They have to win at least one of those games and sweep the rest just to get to 9-7.

Miami (4-5): Miami was slumping to begin with, and now you have two offensive lineman–Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito–gone from the team, and the accompanying media firestorm and NFL investigation coming. The Dolphins are not going to the playoffs.

The Jets have the good fortune of playing Miami twice in the remaining seven weeks. New York also has a home game with Oakland. If the Jets sweep these three they’re up to eight wins. The only game you really want to write off is a road game at Carolina. There’s a key home game with Cleveland on December 22, and the biggest game will likely be on November 24 when the Jets travel to Baltimore.

I’m not sure that I’m ready to pick the Jets for this final playoff spot right now. I’d be inclined to still give the Ravens the tiniest benefit of the doubt in any case and the fact the head-to-head matchup is in Charm City solidifies that. But there’s no denying the New York Jets playoff chances–a phrase that would have gotten you laughed at for uttering in September–are very real as the season moves deeper into November.

(6)Baltimore at (3)Indianapolis
(5)Kansas City at (4)Cincinnati
BYES: (1) Denver, (2) New England