NFL Preview - N.Y. Jets (6-6) at Tampa Bay (1-11)
By Lyle Fitzsimmons, Contributing NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - It's a good thing the game's in Florida.
Because if it were anywhere else than a temperate locale just a short jaunt from the Gulf of Mexico - game time forecast, 78 degrees - it might be a bit difficult to get anyone to pay attention while thinking about what could have been.
A year ago, an early-December matchup between the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers would have featured two nine-win teams angling for conference positioning, not to mention Brett Favre heading to Raymond James Stadium for the first time since it almost became his home field.
Add in Eric Mangini vs. Jon Gruden on the sidelines and it's an instant classic.
This year, though... things are a trifle different.
With just one win in 12 games, the Bucs' sights are set far more on April draft boards than January playoff tickets. As for the Jets, a 3-0 start followed by a 3-6 encore yields precious little reason for rampant postseason optimism, particularly with a late-season schedule that still features Atlanta, Indianapolis and Cincinnati.
Mangini has taken his paranoid robot show to Cleveland.
Gruden is serving as Ron Jaworski's slightly less-verbose foil in the ESPN broadcast booth.
And that Favre fella...well, let's just say he landed on his feet up north.
To top it off, even the tenuous "battle of rookie quarterbacks" angle took a fatal hit on Wednesday, when the Jets announced prized No. 5 draft pick Mark Sanchez would not only not play this weekend as he nurses a sore right knee back to health - he won't even make the 1,008-mile trip from suburban Newark to suburban St. Petersburg.
Kellen Clemens, the 2005 draft pick from Oregon who won three times in eight starts when last asked to lead the team two years ago, will get the call again Sunday. He completed one pass for 14 yards in Sanchez's absence last week against Buffalo.
Former Tennessee standout Erik Ainge will serve as his backup.
Rex Ryan's decision to leave Sanchez in the chilly northeast raised the ire of his gimpy prodigy and resulted in the New York Daily News running a back-page picture of the quarterback Thursday under the headline "Baby Sitting: Mark whines as Rex opts to go with Clemens against Bucs."
For Tampa Bay, 21-year-old Josh Freeman - the 6-foot-6 Kansas State product whom some Jets fans had coveted prior to last April's draft - makes his seventh appearance since officially taking the reins from the ineffectual two-headed signal-calling monster that was Byron Leftwich and Josh Johnson.
Freeman piloted the Bucs to their lone win - a 38-28 defeat of Green Bay on Nov. 8 - and has been mildly effective along the way as a whole, completing 54.4 percent of his passes for 1,114 yards, seven touchdowns and a very rookie- like 10 interceptions.
Five of the 10 picks came last week at Carolina, a game Tampa Bay lost, 16-6.
"We just have to make better decisions at the end," Bucs coach Raheem Morris said of Freeman, who threw three of the five INTs while deep in Panthers territory. "We've got to make better plays at the end. We're still looking for that guy to stand up and be the closer for us. We've got one at quarterback (in Freeman). He just didn't have a good day in the red zone."
The Jets have a 8-1 lead in their all-time series with the Buccaneers, and have won six in a row since Tampa notched its only win in the series, in 1984 at home. The Jets were 14-12 home winners when the clubs last met, in 2005, and earned a 21-17 decision when they last visited Tampa Bay in 2000. New York is 2-1 all-time in series road games, with the other win coming in 2000.
The Jets' Ryan and Buccaneers' Morris will be meeting each other, as well as their counterpart's respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE JETS HAVE THE BALL
Fact one: Thomas Jones is pretty good. Fact two: Kellen Clemens might be, but it's not a given. Fact three: The Jets will be quicker to rely on No. 1 this week than trying to decipher No. 2. As the lead workhorse in the league's No. 1 rushing offense - 168.6 yards per game - expect Jones to get the ball multiple times in an effort to add to his 1,068-yard total through 12 games that ranks third-best in the AFC. His nine touchdowns are second in the conference as well, and, with one more, he becomes the first Jet since 1988 to record consecutive seasons of 10-plus on the ground. Additionally, Jones is 117 yards short of 9,000 for his career. A member of the Buccaneers in 2003, Jones is on pace this season for a career-best 1,424 yards. As for Clemens, his last start in Florida - Dec. 2, 2007 against the then-winless Miami Dolphins - resulted in a 40-13 win in which he threw for 236 yards and a touchdown.
A lot of Jones could spell a lot of trouble for the not-so-stingy Bucs, who rank 31st out of 32 teams with an average weekly yield of 160.1 yards via the run. A weekly passing number of 205.7 makes the total 365.8, more than 40 yards higher than the Jets' average weekly rate. The Bucs have been outscored in each of four quarters, including ugly 57-point margins in both the first and third quarters, which may reveal something about both the game plans and ability - or lack thereof - to make changes on the fly. Pass rushing has been something of a strength, yielding 24 sacks in 12 games, led by ends Jimmy Wilkerson (6) and Stylez G. White (5.5). All White's sacks have come in the past six games. In the backfield, safety Tanard Jackson has three interceptions, and two returns for touchdowns, in his last four home games, while veteran Ronde Barber aims for a third straight game with a pick against the Jets.
WHEN THE BUCS HAVE THE BALL
Ignoring the five interceptions - as if that were really possible - Freeman didn't do a bad job while steering the offense in a stern road test against a divisional foe. The Bucs accounted for a season-high 469 total yards - including 321 through the air - but were held to their second-lowest point total of 2009 due to Freeman's mistakes and a pair of missed field goals from Connor Barth. Among the others, running back Cadillac Williams has shown a fondness for work. He rushed for 92 yards last week and has accounted for 1,381 yards and seven touchdowns in 13 career games with at least 20 carries. Incidentally, Tampa Bay has won 10 of those 13 games. Through the air, tight end Kellen Winslow leads the team with 58 catches and looks for a sixth straight outing with at least four receptions. On the outside, receiver Antonio Bryant had five catches for 116 yards against the Panthers.
Lining up against a rookie quarterback and a star-free unit as a whole, New York figures to use its prolific defense to full advantage. The Jets enter the week first in the AFC and second in the league overall with an average of 276.4 total yards allowed per week. Nearly 110 yards are allowed on the ground, compared to a paltry 167 through the air. New York has also registered 24 sacks through 12 games, led by six from streaking Shaun Ellis (6), 5.5 from linebacker David Harris and five from fellow linebacker Calvin Pace. All of Ellis's sacks have come in the last five games, while Pace missed the initial four games of the season on a league suspension. Harris has a team-best 106 tackles, including 72 solos. In the backfield, ball-hawking cornerback Darrelle Revis has three interceptions in his last two games and leads the unit with five. He needs one more to surpass last season's career-best.
As noted throughout, Jones stands out as the surest bet on either team. In fact, even understudy Shonn Greene might get enough work to warrant notice, especially if the Jets lead early. Mean time, if passes are thrown, holdover Jerricho Cotchery figures to get the most green notice after Clemens admitted this week he'd never throw a ball of any sort to new teammate Braylon Edwards. For the Bucs, main threat Bryant is likely a pair with Revis, which negates his prospects. In a pinch, turn to Winslow. Defensively, the Jets and a rookie QB may add up to crucial turnover points.
As the previous narrative points out, this is a matchup strongly favoring the Jets. Even without Sanchez, the presence of an elite run game against a porous opponent should result in success in exactly the sort of smash-mouth offense, punishing defensive game that Ryan claimed as an M.O. upon his hire. With the late schedule full of land mines, this is Gang Green's absolute definition of must-win.
And unless the unexpected occurs, they'll get it.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Jets 24, Bucs 14
12/10 12:15:58 ET