NFL Preview - Carolina (4-6) at N.Y. Jets (4-6)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's only been 11 years. But for a certain New Jersey-based football team, they surely must seem like "Glory Days."
Back when, a decade-plus-one ago this Sunday, it seemed so easy for the New York football Jets.
It was Vinny Testaverde dropping back. Looking off Keyshawn Johnson. Passing to Wayne Chrebet. Or handing off to Curtis Martin. On that day - Nov. 29, 1998, to be exact - it was a 48-21 win for Gang Green the last time the Carolina Panthers made the trip north to face this weekend's AFC East foe.
And this time around, you can't blame the patrons at the Meadowlands for feeling sentimental.
Three sideline stand-ins - and one impromptu resignation (thank you, Bill Belichick) - removed from Bill Parcells and no fewer than seven starting signal-callers past the pre-Achilles days of Testaverde, the green-clad 2009 reality is about as comparable to that year's NFL "Final Four" team as Garden State icon Bruce Springsteen's latest recording efforts are to "Born to Run."
A 31-14 loss to New England at Gillette Stadium last week was another step into the Rex Ryan coaching abyss, which began with three season-opening wins before deteriorating into six losses in seven games and a series of since-failed motivational techniques by a seemingly overmatched first-year boss.
Similarly "Lost in the Flood" is rookie QB Mark Sanchez, who threw four interceptions against just eight completions against the Patriots to complete a plummet to his now-inglorious standing as the lowest-rated full-time starter in the NFL - 61.1 passer rating.
He has been picked off 16 times in 10 games and fumbled nine times, losing three.
The balky ball security prompted a shakeup early this week in Jetsville, with Ryan announcing he'll be assuming a more hands-on mentoring relationship with Sanchez, joining offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer and position coach Matt Cavanaugh in the laboratory with the 23-year-old USC product.
Not a moment too soon for the team's veteran core.
"Is it tough right now for the veteran guys? Yeah, we want to win," tackle Damien Woody said. "We don't have many more opportunities. You're not going to yank Sanchez at this point. It makes no sense. It would be counter-productive. You just have to let the kid work through it.
"We like the kid. Is he making a ton of mistakes? Yeah, but we win as a team and we lose as a team."
That said, mistakes aren't the sole property of the weekend's northeast host.
The visiting Panthers have committed 25 turnovers of their own through just 10 games, racking up an ugly minus-8 ratio and once again prompting the vultures to circle above the head of long-time incumbent quarterback Jake Delhomme.
A Super Bowl a few years after the aforementioned run of success for the Jets, Delhomme has stumbled through injury and ineffectiveness nearly each season since, with his touchdown total in 2009 (8) barely more than half his interception count (14) heading into Week 12.
In a Thursday night loss to Miami last time out, Delhomme connected on just 19 of 42 passes for 227 yards and one INT.
Still, other matchups may be more ominous for the Panthers this week.
The Jets average a league-high 163.5 yards per game on the ground and boast the NFL's sixth-leading rusher in Thomas Jones, who has rushed for 884 yards and averaged 4.6 yards per carry.
Carolina gave up an average of 149.3 yards rushing in the first three games, then had an 85.8 average over its next five games following the arrival of defensive tackle Hollis Thomas.
But since outside linebacker Thomas Davis' season-ending knee injury and a hand injury that has limited defensive end Julius Peppers to playing almost exclusively on passing downs, the Panthers surrendered a 179-yard average the past two games against Atlanta and Miami, both strong running teams.
The all-time series between the Panthers and Jets is deadlocked, 2-2, with Carolina evening the series by virtue of a 30-3 rout in Charlotte during the 2005 campaign. The Jets won the previous two meetings, earning a 13-12 victory at Carolina in 2001 and the aforementioned 48-21 triumph at the Meadowlands in 1998. The Jets will be hosting the Panthers at the Meadowlands for only the second time.
Carolina head coach John Fox is 1-0 in his career against the Jets, while New York's Ryan will be meeting both Fox and the Panthers for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
For all his troubles against others, Delhomme won his lone start against the Jets in 2005, though the defense carried the load by forcing six turnovers in a 30-3 rout. He's won four of his last games against AFC foes, and, in games where his passer rating is 110 or above, his teams are a sterling 18-1. Running back DeAngelo Williams, who's third in the NFC in both yards and touchdowns, has 562 yards and five TDs in his last five against the AFC. He's been successful through his career in November, accounting for 954 yards and 10 TDs in eight games in the year's penultimate month. He and backfield mate Jonathan Stewart are the only backfield tandem to top 500 yards and five TDs each. In the air, wideout Steve Smith has 22 catches and two TDs in his last two cross- conference games.
The Panthers' emphasis on the run could be an issue for the Jets, who, while still ranking among the league's leaders in team defense, have been gashed for 100-plus yards by several teams along the way. Their 294.4-yard per week average is still second in the AFC, though they have allowed 111.5 per game on the ground and have been touched for 30 or more points three times and at least 24 in three straight. End Shaun Ellis has a team-high 4.5 sacks and has posted four in the past three games. All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis leads with two interceptions and 15 passes defended, while linebacker David Harris has 88 tackles to lead the unit.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
As mentioned, riding Jones and whomever joins him in the backfield might be the strategy of choice against a squad that's been leaky against the run. With two more TDs, he can be the first New York rusher since Johnny Hector with consecutive seasons of 10 or more. He also needs 116 yards to hit 1,000 for the fifth straight season overall and third in a row with the Jets. Since 2007, he trails only Adrian Peterson with 3,315 yards. As for the pass, Sanchez's have been well-documented. Three interceptions against the Saints. Four against New England. Five against Buffalo. And, when he does complete a pass, it's often not been to newcomer Braylon Edwards, who had one catch against the Patriots. Holdover Jerricho Cotchery and tight end Dustin Keller have been familiar targets of choice, with the former just four catches away from 300 in his career and the latter 80 yards away from 1,000.
Again, as mentioned, the stoutness of the run defense will probably be a deciding factor. If Jones is held in check or close to it and Sanchez is forced to take decisive control, a unit that has superlatives in both pressuring the QB and forcing mistakes could benefit. At end, Peppers has 21.5 sacks in his last 24 games and went for 1.5 in his last meeting with the Jets. On the turnover side, rookie safety Sherrod Martin has three INTs in his last four games and cornerback Richard Marshall has two in his last four. Also, corner Chris Gamble had an INT in his last meeting with the Jets. Statistically, Martin and Marshall share the team lead with three picks, Peppers has a team- best seven sacks and linebacker Jon Beason has 74 tackles to pace the group.
Carolina's Smith is likely to be blanketed by New York's Revis, which will limit his effectiveness. However, Williams is a solid play for the Panthers for what he could do carrying the ball. Same story for the Jets. Jones is a strong play, but the issues with the quarterback decrease both his value and the worth of his receivers, save maybe Keller, who's surged lately as Sanchez's safety valve. Both defenses could account for something against each other's faulty offense as well.
The series of barometer games in the last month clearly indicates the Jets and their 3-0 start was a tough-talking mirage that's now on the verge of lame-duck December chaos equaling last year's meltdown under Eric Mangini. As for the Panthers, they seem a less-fragile emotional bunch at this point, which may be decisive in a rough-and-tumble contest.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Panthers 17, Jets 13
11/25 16:58:57 ET