By Jeremy Gottlieb, Patriots Daily Staff
Don’t look now, but with four games left to play, guess who’s right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture? It’s the Jets, and boy are they yapping.
Two weeks ago, at 5-5 after excruciating, back-to-back losses to the Patriots and Broncos, the Jets were on the ropes at home against a Buffalo team that had lost its way even more than they had. But the Bills, who were marching down the field for a late fourth quarter comeback, suffered a couple of pass drops and couldn’t recover, allowing the Jets to escape with a 28-24 win. Now, cut to last week, with them down 16-13 to the Redskins in Washington and just under eight minutes left to play. QB Mark Sanchez, who’d been horrid up to that point, took advantage of a long kickoff return and tossed a TD pass to Santonio Holmes for a narrow Jets lead. Four plays later, Redskins QB Rex Grossman, as he always does, turned the ball over, the Jets had their second TD in barely a minute and they sailed right back into everyone’s potential post-season scenarios.
Now, they get Kansas City, which has scored one TD (on a Hail Mary) in its last four games at home followed by a road game against the Eagles, who packed it in against Seattle last week. Suddenly, just a handful of weeks after coach Rex Ryan, who has never met a wildly over reactive statement, positive or negative, he didn’t love, was practically crying at a postgame press conference over his team’s plight (in Week 10, mind you), he’s now telling New York reporters that, “we can beat all those teams,” referring to the AFC squads ahead of the Jets in the standings, and spouting off brags like, “if we get in, watch out.”
As eye-rollingly typical such statements are, especially considering the source, it’s hard to argue. The Jets have been participants in the last two AFC Championship games, both years having to play every post season game on the road. That will likely be the scenario this year too; they aren’t winning the AFC East, but their competition for the final Wild Card (Cincinnati, Tennessee, Oakland, even possibly San Diego) scares few. There are potential roadblocks ahead. Week 16 features a matchup with the Giants that should be a great game and they have to travel to Miami for Week 17 and a game that could decide their playoff fate against a team that has become as tough as any in the AFC over the past several weeks. But given the past, the experience and the bluster, there’s little reason to believe the Jets aren’t at the top of the list to wind up with 10 wins and smash their way in. And as Rex says, after that, watch out.
This Week’s Five Best Teams
1. Green Bay: As if we need to laud him any more, Aaron Rodgers nailed down the MVP when he led the Pack on that 80-yard drive in 54 seconds to beat the Giants on Sunday. His pass to Jordy Nelson on that drive which went for 24 yards was likely the single best throw you will see all year.
2. New Orleans: The Saints home game against the Lions nay not have been as daunting as if it’d been played a month ago but it was still a quality win nonetheless, and moved them to 9-3, just a game behind the 49ers for the NFC’s second seed and a first-round bye. Their Week 16 game against the Falcons should ultimately determine their postseason fate.
3. New England: The Pats fall a spot despite winning their fourth straight and topping 30 points again simply because their defense made the 0-12 Colts look like the 2009, 11-0 Colts, and without Peyton Manning to boot. Come on guys, it’s been 12 weeks plus a month and half of preseason. Figure it out!
4. (tie) Baltimore/Pittsburgh: This battle will likely go down to the wire as most between these two division rivals do. The Ravens played down to their competition for the umpteenth time against the Browns (Joe Flacco was outplayed by Colt McCoy for god’s sake) but were rescued by Ray Rice (204 yards on 27 attempts, a robust 7.0 YPA). As for the Steelers, they’ve weathered the storm of Ben Roethlisberger’s litany of injuries (though it was touch and go last night against those same, pesky Browns) and will most likely finish 13-3 provided they get past the Niners on Monday night of Week 15 out in San Francisco. The question is, will the Ravens lose another? Maybe, just maybe that same week at San Diego. But doubtful.
5. San Francisco: The Niners got well on the pathetic Rams, shutting out St. Louis, 26-0. But they have to be alarmed about running back Frank Gore, only their most important player on offense, and Patrick Willis, their most important player on defense. Gore has just 200 yards on 65 attempts in his last four games while Willis strained a hamstring in the Rams game and will likely miss at least one game. The Niners had better hope he’s back for that matchup with the Steelers in a couple weeks.
This Week’s Five Worst Teams
1. Indianapolis: Give the Colts a lot of credit for hanging in there and nearly stealing last week’s game when the Pats defense tried to give it away. Then remember that they’re 0-12, they haven’t done a single thing to try to improve their team this year (nope, Kerry Collins doesn’t cut it) and that prior to the fourth quarter on Sunday, their linebackers and safeties were running away from Rob Gronkowski, only the league leader in TDs as well as its most prolific red zone target, inside the 20 like he had chicken pox.
2. St. Louis: Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tom Brandstater, the Rams likely starter at QB this week, and on Monday Night Football no less. What a disaster.
3. Minnesota: Can’t think of too many other teams that could make Tim Tebow look good as apasser but that’s just what the Vikings did in their 35-32 loss to the Broncos last week. In a related move, the team extended the contract of coach Leslie Frazier for another year this past week. Next, they’ll probably deflate the Metrodome roof again
4. Cleveland: The Browns have scored more than 20 points once all season and reached 20 on one other occasion. Their offense sucks. This is a recording.
5. Jacksonville: The Jags celebrated the post-Jack Del Rio era by getting blown out at home by the Chargers, who came in on a six-game losing streak, on Monday Night. And while we’re here, wouldn’t it be at least slightly humiliating to a Jacksonville fan (presuming there are any) that his or her team is widely referred to as the Jags?
- Gary Kubiak, Texans: Kubiak came into this season having not led his team to a single playoff appearance in six years at the helm. It was sort of hard to believe he was still the coach in Houston. But he’s a legit Coach of the Year candidate this year. The Texans are now 9-3 and on the verge of the franchise’s first ever postseason appearance (and perhaps a first round bye) despite burning through two QBs, getting less than six full games out of their star receiver and losing their best defensive player after five games. Owner Bob McNair’s patience has finally paid off.
- The Cardinals: Look who’s won four out of five! Arizona, which at 5-7 now has an outside (and when we say outside, we mean really, really outside) at the playoffs and are healthy for the first time all year. And their doing it with defense; the Cards have only given up five TDs in their last five games.
- The Seahawks: Hard to believe there can be three teams from the NFC West worth mentioning in the same column, but it’s true. After they shellacked the pathetic Eagles last Thursday, Seattle, which has now won three out of four, moved to 5-7 and have that same way, way outside shot at the post-season as the Cardinals. The defense is giving up just over 15 points per game over the last four and running back Marshawn Lynch has gone for over 100 yards (with a high of 148 last week) in four of his last five with five TDs.
- Raheem Morris, Bucs: Tampa hasn’t won in two months and Morris, last year a boy wonder when his team went 10-6 and now potentially out of a job, looks like he’s losing his grip. He kicked his own player, defensive tackle Brian Price, out of last week’s blowout loss at home to the Panthers following an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, then dropped a few F-bombs in discussing it with media in the aftermath. Morris is the youngest coach in the league and his team backsliding a bot this year after some early success last year makes a lot of sense. But he’d better get a hold of himself. Even if the Bucs do kick him to the curb after the season, he’s still got plenty of time to get more head coaching jobs. Best not burn too many bridges.
- Jim Schwartz, Lions: Detroit, darlings of the league for the first two months of the season, is now in a semi tailspin and are killing themselves with one stupid penalty after another. It’s not just Ndamukong Suh stomping on guys. It’s receivers getting facemask penalties and piling up offensive pass interference calls. It’s other guys losing their composure and costing the team huge chunks of yardage in unsportsmanlike conduct or unnecessary roughness penalties. And when Schwartz went berserk on 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh after that bizarre postgame handshake back in October, he set the tone for all this hotheadedness. Now, if the Lions want to go anywhere, whether it’s this year or ever, he’s got to get a handle on it.
- Jason Garrett, Cowboys: Someday, Garrett might be a good coach. He has the makings. But someone has to teach him to get out of his own way. Last week, he iced his own kicker in a brutal overtime loss to Arizona, using a timeout about 30 seconds later than he should have. But even more glaring was the fact that he ran so much time off the clock in order to set up a possible game-winning kick from 49 yards away. Garrett was so afraid his offense would screw up if he called time when he actually should have and ran another play, that he cost them a win. It was reminiscent of how badly he mismanaged the clock late in Dallas’s loss to the Pats in October. You have to play to win, you can’t play not to lose. Garrett needs to learn this lesson soon.
Since we’re talking about coaches so much, how about Tennessee’s Mike Munchak? Munchak, who made the Hall of Fame after a storied career as an offensive lineman for the Houston Oilers the Tennessee Titans franchise, took over as head coach following the firing of longtime head man Jeff Fisher following last season. No one expected much from the Titans this year; they drafted a quarterback (Jake Locker) in the first round and brought in mostly used up veteran Matt Hasselbeck to keep the seat warm for him. But other than stud running back Chris Johnson, there wasn’t too much there. Yet the Titans are 7-5 and right in the thick of the AFC playoff picture. They don’t do anything particularly well; they’re 18th in total defense and 22nd in total offense. But they are sixth in points allowed at 19.1 per game and Johnson, who got off to a brutally slow start following a training camp holdout, is finally running the way he has in the previous couple of seasons, with 343 yards on just 46 attempts in his last two games, both wins.
After hosting New Orleans this week, Tennessee has three straight very winnable games to close out the season, all against division rivals, and could easily finish 10-6. And Munchak, who coached the offensive line for 14 years before taking over for Fisher, has presided over it. He won’t win Coach of the Year; that honor was sewed up by 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh weeks ago. But Munchak deserves votes. The Titans are for real.