NFL Preview - Atlanta (6-7) at N.Y. Jets (7-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's the most wonderful time of the year.
Except, that is, if you're a New York Jets fan.
Rather than parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting and caroling out in the snow, December supporters of Gang Green are usually left to draft-choice lamenting, much losing-streak venting and title dreaming when the answer is no.
And worst of all, the late-season torture often comes in the form of a hollow, loveless tease.
New York started off the decade with a morale-sapping Christmas Eve loss in Baltimore, outgaining the Ravens, 524-142, only to lose a 34-20 decision and the wildcard playoff berth that went with it.
A year later, the Jets earned a postseason pass with a road win at Oakland in Week 17, only to return to the Bay Area a week later for a 14-point loss to the very same Raiders.
The Silver & Black ended New York's season again in round of the 2002 playoffs, winning a 20-point verdict with Rich Gannon after the Jets had routed Tom Brady, Brett Favre and Peyton Manning in succession.
In 2003, three losses in four December games spelled no playoffs, which many consider an ending far less painful than 2004 - when Doug Brien missed a pair of late field goals in another round two playoff loss, this time to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Jets were 2-3 in missing out again in 2005, then reversed course with four wins in five December games in 2006, only to draw a 37-16 shellacking from New England in another failed playoff bow.
The faithful should have known better.
Form returned in both 2007 and last season, with New York dropping six of nine in month No. 12 to run the postseason absence streak to two while also running both Eric Mangini and Favre out of town.
As for 2009, it's hard to imagine much more than traditional heartbreak.
At 7-6, the Jets are part of a four-team gaggle now sharing the final AFC wildcard spot, though they'd have to avoid ties with Miami and Jacksonville based on regular-season losses and finish strong to make up a one-game deficit in conference record in the event of a deadlock with fellow pursuer Baltimore.
Still, some are seeing reason for optimism because each of the team's final three opponents - Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati - are either battling rampant injuries or positioning themselves to rest key players on the path to their own locked-in playoff appearances.
Beat reporter Rich Cimini, citing a need for rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez to finish strong in his debut season, referenced the possibly diminished opposing lineups in Wednesday's New York Daily News.
"It's going to be tougher against the Falcons and Colts, even if the opposing quarterbacks are named Chris Redman and Curtis Painter, respectively," he said. "The Jets also may catch a break in the final game because the Bengals could be locked into the No. 2 or No. 3 seed, which means they could rest their regulars for the playoffs. How does J.T. O'Sullivan at quarterback grab you?
"Whether it's O'Sullivan or Carson Palmer, Painter or Peyton Manning, Redman or Ryan, the Jets need to see more of Sanchez. He doesn't have to play to validate his status - we know he's not going anywhere - but it would be nice to see him in the crucible of a big December game."
Meanwhile in Atlanta, the Falcons are simply hoping their stars can show up healthy.
Both quarterback Matt Ryan and running back Michael Turner missed last week's narrow 26-23 home loss to New Orleans, which dropped the hosts to 6-7 after a 5-3 start and pushed them further from the lead in a similarly log-jammed NFC wild card chase.
Ryan (toe) and Turner (ankle) started this week with "questionable" tags alongside their names, while wide receiver Brian Finneran is officially done for the year after suffering a knee injury against the Saints.
Neither Ryan nor Turner - not to mention teammates Jamaal Anderson (chest), Jonathan Babineaux (shoulder), Sam Baker (elbow, hamstring) and Chris Houston (hamstring) - took part in Wednesday's practice due to injuries.
Former Jet John Abraham also missed the session, though his absence was not injury related.
Green Bay (9-4) and Dallas (8-5) hold the prized slots in the playoff scheme entering Week 15, with the New York Giants a game back at 7-6 - and a game up on both the Falcons and the suddenly-impressive San Francisco 49ers.
After spending this week in New Jersey, the Falcons head home for a Christmas weekend match with Buffalo before finishing the schedule three days into the New Year with a road trip to Tampa Bay.
"We're never going to quit," said veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez, a first-year Falcon. "Our ability to never quit is indicative to the style of coaching that Coach Smith brings to this team.
"We're playing football. Quitting is unacceptable for this team. If we quit, it wouldn't be fair to our teammates, it wouldn't be fair to the fans, and it wouldn't be fair to me, and it definitely wouldn't be fair to the organization."
The Falcons lead the all-time series with the Jets, 5-4, breaking a deadlock in the series with a 27-14 triumph at the Georgia Dome in 2005. New York won the previous meeting, a 28-3 rout at the Meadowlands in 1998. The Jets are 2-0 in series home games since Atlanta left the Big Apple with a 27-21 win in 1983.
The Jets' Rex Ryan and Falcons' Mike Smith will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Much will depend on who's actually there to possess it. If Ryan is unable to go, backup Chris Redman will make a third straight start after previous outings against Tampa Bay and New Orleans. He went for 303 yards in the loss to the Saints, just the second time he's reached 300 in his career. Same goes for Turner, who's second in the conference with 10 touchdowns. In his place, running back Jason Snelling had a rushing TD last week, but the attack was hardly similar. It did, however, mean more face time for the pass-catchers, including sure-fire Hall of Famer Gonzalez, who has at least four catches in six straight meetings with New York and caught six balls for 79 yards and a touchdown in his last meeting against them in 2008 while with Kansas City. Wideout Roddy White has four touchdown catches of at least 20 yards on the season, while Michael Jenkins reeled in a 50-yard scoring pass from Redman last week.
No, it's not a misprint. The Jets enter Week 15 with the league's top-ranked defense - allowing just 264.7 yards and 16.2 points per game - after a stellar performance last week against an anemic Tampa Bay offense. New York hounded rookie quarterback Josh Freeman all afternoon long and aim at Redman/Ryan while seeking a fourth consecutive game with at least three sacks. The Buccaneers managed just six first downs, converted no third-down opportunities (out of 14 tries) and wound up with just 124 total yards on the day. Cornerback Darrelle Revis continued making a case for Defensive Player of the Year with an interception, giving him four INTs in his last three games. Embattled safety Kerry Rhodes, who briefly lost his starting job, has rebounded with three interceptions in his last three games. Linebacker David Harris leads the unit with 107 tackles, including 73 solos.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
As with Atlanta, the QB is in question. Sanchez missed last week with a knee injury, leaving the team under the reins of Clemens, who completed 12-of-23 passes for 111 yards and no touchdowns while inspiring little faith that he could end a 40-year title drought. Sanchez had limited participation in Wednesday's practice and is still listed as "questionable," though he is generally expected to play. He enters the game needing 172 yards to erase Joe Namath's 1965 mark for Jets rookie passers. Either way, running back Thomas Jones figures to be a focal point after gaining 99 yards against the Bucs to raise his season total to 1,167 (second in the conference), along with touchdown No. 11 that's good for third in the league. The Jets continue to lead the league with a weekly average of 169.1 on the ground. On the receiving end, Jerricho Cotchery leads the team with 42 receptions for 688 yards.
Contrary to their hosts in green, the red-and-black clad Falcons have been largely generous on the defensive side of things, permitting 375.7 yards per week. They've given up at least 20 points in seven of 13 games and 30 or more four times, including a season-high 37 at Dallas on Oct. 25. The Saints managed 391 yards in their win last week, on the heels of 380 yards by the Eagles seven days earlier. Kroy Biermann and Babineaux each have five sacks on a team that's managed just 23 overall, while Thomas DeCoud and Brent Grimes continue to share the lead with two interceptions apiece. In terms of tackles, linebacker Curtis Lofton leads the charge with 117, including 94 solos. Among other individuals, Abraham again meets the team that drafted him in round one in 2000. His 53.5 sacks are third in team history. Also, cornerback Houston has a team-best nine passes defended.
Injuries and matchups have as much to do with things this week as they ever will. Atlanta's White figures to be limited by a matchup with Revis, whom many believe is the best corner in the league. And the uncertainty in the Atlanta backfield removes Turner and Ryan from serious consideration. However, Gonzalez is always a fine play. For the Jets, Sanchez is limited, though his return might bode well for tight end Dustin Keller. Meanwhile, starting lock Jones rolls on in the backfield. The Jets' defense is also a strong play with either a backup QB or a rusty starter.
A three-game streak. A still feasible chance at the playoffs. A home date with a battered foe. All signs point toward the Jets warranting their standing as five-point favorites. And unless Rex Ryan and Co. revert back to the December form of their predecessors, it's a task they should be able to handle. Look for Jones to put up numbers against a less-than-stingy defense and for Revis and Co. to take advantage of whatever signal-caller begins the game for Atlanta. Merry Christmas, New Jersey.
At least for the time being.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 20, Falcons 10
12/17 13:31:11 ET