It's still a longshot, the sort that only old-timey archers capable of splitting arrows in twain and desperate gamblers looking to get out of a hole might take. But the New York Jets are still alive in the AFC playoff hunt. And the defending-champion Pittsburgh Steelers are not, dealt a shock defeat by the Cleveland Browns last night on Thursday Night Football.
Heading into the game, the Steelers, favored by double digits on the road, were among the throng in the AFC sporting 6-6 records and camped out in the far-right "In the Hunt" column of each playoff graphic shown during broadcasts of games this past week. Also in the also-ran column are the Baltimore Ravens, the Miami Dolphins and the New York Jets. These four clubs are chasing the Jacksonville Jaguars (7-5) and the Denver Broncos (8-4), who currently hold the Wild Card spots in the conference. In spite of the myriad tie-breaker scenarios in the NFL, the path to the postseason for the Jets is simple. Win. Win. Win. Win. And hope that these other teams lose. Lose. Lose. Lose.
With former Jets coach Eric Mangini at the helm, the lowly one-win, zero-hope Cleveland Browns upended Little Ben and the Stillers, 13-6, on blustery cold night at creatively named Cleveland Browns Stadium. QB-turned-WR-turned-RB-turned-Incredible-Untackleable-Beast-After-a-Freak-Gamma-Ray-Accident Joshua Cribbs dominated in special teams and on offense. He racked up 200 yards across all phases of the game, setting up the Browns' scores and securing a key first down late in the game. He seemed to be everything that the Jets' slender QB-turned-WR Brad Smith could never be under Mangini. As Deion said after the game, pay the man.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns' defense, coached by Rob Ryan - brother of Jets head coach Rex Ryan - threw a tightly-woven, mouth-breathing, flesh and shoulder pad blanket over the Pittsburgh offense to keep them warm on this wintry night with winds upwards of 15 mph and temperatures dropping below zero with the wind chill. The Browns sacked Roethlisburger 8 times and knocked him down 12. They recorded three passes defensed and made 10 tackles for a loss. They limited Rashard Mendenhal, Willie Parker and Ben to 75 yards on the ground on 22 carries and just 201 in the air on 18 completions. It was a suffocating performance and the NFL Network broadcasters were going out of their way to laud Ryan in the later stages of the game. I couldn't tell how much of this was meant to credit the defensive coordinator or to deflect the spotlight from Mangini.
The Browns' secondary was covering flawlessly as the Steelers made their last two, last-ditch drives to take the lead, and it might have been worth mentioning that Mangini was the secondary coach in New England before his rapid ascension to the head coaching ranks by way of the D-Coordinator gig under Bill Belichick. Some of those 8 sack were most definitely coverage sacks as well. I'm not saying that Mangini deserved all the credit, because he didn't, but I did feel like he was getting short changed slightly by the guys in the booth. Considering that the Browns haven't beaten their division rival in 12 tries there is a chance that this triumph goes a long way towards getting Mangini another shot at coaching this club. For all his personality problems and control issues, I do think the guy still can be a winning football coach. Like when he got that big win at Foxboro in his first year, he does seem to have a knack for rallying the troops against a favored rival. Regardless, the result was surely a nice early Chanukah gift (not as nice as Mark Sanchez but perhaps even nicer than Braylon Edwards) from the former Jets coach and the brother of the current Jets skipper. It sure is nice to have friends and family in low places when you're looking to squeak into the playoffs.
If (err.... when) Rexy's Midday Runners miss out on the Super Bowl playoffs, most fans will tap the twin losses to the Dolphins and the last-second defeat to the Jaguars as the key moments of the season. Those losses at the hands of two of the five clubs in contention for the last Wild Card berth in the AFC cost the Jets in nearly every tiebreaker scenario. For my money, though, the unfathomable overtime home loss to the Buffalo Bills is the game that I'll blame most.
The Jets were caught off guard by the heat and the hunger of the Dolphins in their trip down to Miami. They were outplayed in the trenches that night. They lost. Plain. Simple. There can be no second guessing when you lose that way to a division foe, even if the Jets kept the game close. In the return game with the Dolphins in North Jersey, the Jets were sunk by a superlative effort by return man Ted Ginn. I can't defend special teams coach Mike Westhoff's refusal to kick away from Ginn after the first run back but I also can't get too worked up over a loss in which one player on the other sideline had a career-best day. Again, those things happen. And they cost you games. With such a glaring breakdown in one of the game's three phases it's hard to make a case that the Jets should have won that game no matter how great the defense played. Perhaps the could have but Ginn secured it for Miami. The once-and-then-again draft bust was even named Meast of the Week over at KSK. And, against the Jaguars, the Jets just got beat. The defense couldn't get the big stop it needed down the stretch and the offense couldn't put enough points on the board to put it away when they had a chance. That game was a turnover fest and even Fireman Ed would be hard pressed to say that the Jets deserved that game. They certainly could have won it. But I'm not going to say they should have won it.
But, that loss at home to the Bills? Oh, boy. Now that game was a microcosm of that hoary, overused "same ol Jets" phrase on the tips of the tongues of every talk show host on your AM radio dial. The Jets should have won that game. Thomas Jones rushed for a franchise-best 210 yards. Leon Washington roared for 99 yards of his own. That's more than 900 feet of offense right there. On the other side of the ball, the Jets' defense concussed Bills QB Trent Edwards, knocking him out of the game. Darrelle Revis held Terrell Owens to just three catches for thirteen yards. The Jets mostly kept Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson in check, holding each to less than 65 yards on a ton of carries. But rookie heartbreaker Mark Sanchez tossed five picks in the game. Yet the Jets still were poised to win in overtime when Leon Washington and Thomas Jones plowed their way down to the Buffalo 22 in the opening possession of the fifth quarter. A holding penalty then backed the Jets up ten yards to the 32. Not a bunny but certainly a makeable field goal. Even on a murky, gray day. We never found out, though, as the snap was muffed by the holder who then threw a pick while trying to make amends. Buffalo ball. Several brutal-to-watch exchanges of possession later and the Bills kicked a game-winning field goal of their own. This side of Cleveland, few teams have ever done less than Buffalo that Sunday and managed a victory.
If the Jets don't eventually take advantage of the gifts bestowed upon them by the Browns (beating the Steelers), the Raiders (beating the Steelers last week), the Packers (beating the Ravens) and the Colts (beating the Titans) then I'll be looking back on that Sunday when Sanchez gave away a game to a Ryan Fitzpatrick-quarterbacked and Dick Jauron-coached team. For my money (and it was literally for my money as I dropped $100 on ticket in the 300-level), that's the loss that may ultimately doom this season. Oh, and that was also the game we lost nose tackle Kris Jenkins for the season. So, that certainly hasn't helped us down the stretch, either.