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NFL Preview - Jacksonville (4-4) at N.Y. Jets (4-4)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Will the truly mediocre AFC pretender please stand up?
When they meet in the soon-to-be demolished concrete bowl alongside the East Rutherford Sheraton this weekend, that'll be the question both the Jacksonville Jaguars and host New York Jets are desperately trying to avoid.
With both stuck at 4-4 through eight games, the winner Sunday will be a step closer toward actually competing for a playoff berth in a conference where 10 of 16 teams have at least four wins.
The loser, meanwhile, will be left with the biting words of former New Jersey football guru Bill Parcells: "You are what you're record says you are."
And at 4-5, that won't be much.
Jets coach Rex Ryan - who predicted a Super Bowl title during the Obama presidency on the day he was hired - is still optimistic, notwithstanding a 3-0 start that's been followed by four losses in five games.
"We think we belong. The great thing is we get to find out," he said. "We haven't been blown out. It's not like somebody just totally killed us. In Miami, one phase of the game beat us on that Monday night. Their offense whipped our defense. Special teams, in this last one, they outplayed us. They can't legitimately say they really whipped us.
"There is no reason for us not to think we have a playoff team."
New York had its annual bye last week and the players were given six days away from work by Ryan, a break designed to help erase the memory of October's collapse.
The Jets trail New England (6-2) by two games in the AFC East. They visit the Patriots next weekend.
A win this weekend and another in Foxboro could return New York to first place.
"If we capitalize on the positive things we did in the first eight games and build on those, there's no reason why we can't run these tables," said wide receiver Braylon Edwards, acquired from Cleveland when the team was 3-1, "no reason why we can't win enough games to get into the playoffs."
In Jacksonville, the struggles are similar.
The Jaguars have reached the .500 plateau on two other occasions this season, but followed each success with a momentum-sapping failure. They got to 2-2 before a 41-0 loss at Seattle, then were 3-3 before falling, 30-13, at previously winless Tennessee.
Win No. 4 came last week, in the form of a 24-21 home squeaker against one-win Kansas City.
Since the beginning of 2006, in fact, Coach Jack Del Rio's team is 28-28.
Jacksonville is third in a muddled AFC South, trailing first-place Indianapolis (8-0) by four games and sitting a half-game behind 5-4 Houston.
"We're alive. We have a shot," he said. "There's not been a lid placed on our year right now. There's an opportunity, and to me that's a good thing. You don't want to arbitrarily place a lid on yourself.
"Why would you place a ceiling on yourself of what you're capable of? Why? Why would any team do that? I'm going to say the sky is the limit. It's up to us."
Jacksonville owns a 5-2 advantage in the all-time regular season series with the Jets, including a 41-0 home beat-down of Gang Green when the teams last met in 2006. The Jaguars also won in their most recent trip to meet the Jets at the Meadowlands, taking a 26-20 overtime decision in 2005. New York's last win in the series came at home in 2003.
In addition to the regular season series, the clubs have met once in the postseason, with New York scoring a 34-24 home victory in a 1998 AFC Divisional Playoff.
Del Rio is 2-1 in his career against the Jets, while New York's Ryan will be meeting both Del Rio and the Jaguars for the first time as a head coach. Del Rio and Ryan both served as defensive coaches on the Baltimore Ravens staff from 1999 through 2001, winning a Super Bowl together in 2000.
WHEN THE JAGUARS HAVE THE BALL
Against a team that's been dinged on the ground and is missing its primary run- stuffer, expect Maurice Jones-Drew to play a significant role. Third in the AFC with 737 yards and first in the league with 11 touchdowns, the 5-foot-7 workhorse has stepped successfully into the No. 1 role he'd long coveted while sharing time with Fred Taylor. He scored twice in his last game against the Jets in 2006 and has both 51 touchdowns in 55 career games and 10 rushing scores in his last six. Through the air, fellow hyphenated standout Mike Sims- Walker had a breakout game last week, posting a career-best 147 yards and reaching triple digits for the third time in 2009. He leads the team with 36 catches for 554 yards. Quarterback David Garrard posted a 110.7 passer rating against the Chiefs, improving Jacksonville to 15-4 when he reaches 100.0 or better.
The Jets opened the season with a blizzard of both production and talk, though both have simmered down a bit since the losing began. The 273.4 yards allowed per game is best in the AFC, with 108.1 per week coming on the ground. Lineman Kris Jenkins is out for the season with a knee injury, but a rotation of players up front has stood up well while allowing just nine points to opposing offenses in the last two pre-bye games. New York also registered six sacks against Miami before the break. Linebackers David Harris and Calvin Pace pace the team with 3.5 and 3 sacks, respectively, while Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis - who figures to see plenty of Sims-Walker this week - has two interceptions. Harris also leads the unit with 65 tackles - 43 of the solo variety. Shaun Ellis had two of the sacks against Miami and is one away from reaching third in franchise history.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Fresh off a pair of 300-plus yard rushing efforts, the Jets now lead the league with 177.6 yards on the ground per week and have registered 253.6 yards per game in their last three. Veteran Thomas Jones has seen the bulk of that work since the season-ending injury to Leon Washington, averaging 144.3 per game in the last three and seeking a fourth straight outing with at least 100. He averages 105.2 yards in games where he amasses at least 20 carries. In the air, rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez has limited his costly mistakes in recent weeks, emerging without a turnover against the Dolphins. Eight of his 10 interceptions came in losses to the Saints and Bills. In the other six, he has just two. In his last two games before the break, he posted a 102.4 passer rating while throwing three TD passes and no interceptions. Among the targets, Jerricho Cotchery is back to full strength after leg problems and Edwards has averaged 21.4 yards per catch in two games against Jacksonville. Tight end Dustin Keller had a career-best eight catches against Miami.
Defensively, Jacksonville bounced back relatively well against Kansas City - 301 total yards allowed - after it had been gashed for 228 yards a week earlier by Tennessee back Chris Johnson, who scored a pair of second-half touchdowns on runs of 52 and 89 yards. In that loss, the Jaguars gave up an obscene 305 yards on the ground and 430 total, leaving their overall averages in those categories at a still-swelled 119.8 and 362 per week, respectively, after the Chiefs. They've been outscored in three of four quarters and by 41 points overall while generating just eight sacks and five interceptions in 32 quarters, plus an overtime period. Cornerback Rashean Mathis is the franchise's all-time leader with 27 interceptions and shares the team lead this season with two. That lead is split with rookie corner Derek Cox, who's tied for second among the league's rookies.
The Jaguars, and fantasy owners, figure to live and die with Jones-Drew, especially against an undermanned Jets defense that's been battered by power runners. The emphasis on running likely removes the threat of Sims-Walker, who'll have enough of a task dealing with Revis and ought to be avoided. For the Jets, Jones is a safe play, though there's always the chance that Sanchez takes his chances against a foe showing little urgency either getting to the quarterback (last in the NFL) or picking off his mistakes (29th in the league). Edwards or Cotchery, then, if you own them, might be worth a shot.
This one reeks of being all about matchups, both Jones-Drew vs. the Jets' run defense and Sanchez against a susceptible Jaguars pass defense. The wildcard then becomes Jones, who could help New York run down the clock, especially if it gets a lead. Provided it keeps the Jaguars from running wild, Gang Green's defense ought to help provide said advantage.
Wake up the bluster machine...the Jets get back on a roll heading to Foxboro.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 17, Jaguars 9
11/12 14:48:25 ET