National Football League

                  === Flawed Jets can still sniff playoffs ===
 By Jeff Saukaitis, Contributing Editor
 Philadelphia,  PA (Sports Network) - When John Madden was an NFL color analyst,
 he frequently used to say that winning was a great deodorant.
 The former Oakland Raiders coach meant that sometimes when teams won games, the
 victories at least temporarily masked their deficiencies.
 So  we have the  case of the 2012 New York Jets. Their unimpressive 7-6 victory
 Sunday  over the  Arizona Cardinals raised their record to a less-than-mediocre
 5-7, yet kept alive their fledgling playoff hopes.
 After  months of speculation that a controversy between Mark Sanchez and first-
 year  Jets' quarterback  Tim Tebow would materialize, it never did. However, an
 ineffective  Sanchez  was pulled in the  third quarter against the Cardinals in
 favor of Greg McElroy, who led the Jets on their game-winning drive.
 The  uncertainty at  quarterback (head coach Rex Ryan declined Monday to name a
 starter  for  this Sunday's contest  at Jacksonville)  makes the Jets look like
 anything  but  a contender, however  it's not as far-fetched  as it may seem at
 first glance.
 Considering  that the  Jets' final four opponents (Jacksonville, Tennessee, San
 Diego  and Buffalo)  all have  losing records,  it's possible  for New  York to
 remain in contention until the final day of the season.
 While  qualifying  for the postseason  should generally be  the goal of all NFL
 teams, arguably the worst thing that can happen to the Jets' organization would
 be a five-game winning streak to close the regular season.
 Sure,  the 9-7 record would be a one-game improvement over last season. Yes, it
 would  give  the Jets a shot  at gaining the No.  6 seed into the AFC playoffs.
 What  it would  mostly  do,  however, is  provide  a  temporary application  of
 deodorant  that could end  up canceling - or at least delaying - the rebuilding
 process the Jets sorely need to begin.
 It  wasn't  all that long  ago that the  Jets appeared on  the verge of a Super
 Bowl.  They made back-to-back AFC Championship Game appearances in the 2009 and
 2010 seasons, even doing so with a 9-7 record in 2009.
 So,  why can't the  Jets make similar magic happen with another 9-7 finish this
 year?  It's  simple: They just  aren't as  good a team  as they were back then.
 They've yet to win two consecutive games.
 Much  of the lineup  is the same, but aging linebackers Calvin Pace, Bart Scott
 and  Bryan Thomas have  lost a step or two. A season-ending injury to all-world
 cornerback  Darrelle  Revis has prevented  the Jets' defense from gambling with
 the  kinds of  blitzes Ryan  and defensive  coordinator Mike  Pettine routinely
 dialed  up  in previous seasons.  The result  has been a virtually non-existent
 pass rush.
 New  York still prefers the kind of Ground and Pound attack it featured in 2009
 and  2010,  but the  '09 team had  a dependable veteran  running back in Thomas
 Jones. The '10 squad had a solid replacement for Jones in LaDainian Tomlinson.
 When  Tomlinson retired  after last  season,  he was  not adequately  replaced.
 Neither  was elite blocking fullback Tony Richardson, whose retirement prior to
 the 2011 season left a leadership void, as well.
 New  York's offensive line play, despite the presence of Pro Bowl fixtures Nick
 Mangold  and  D'Brickashaw Ferguson, has  deteriorated. The retirement of right
 tackle  Damien Woody  has turned that position into a turnstile. Former second-
 round  draft  pick Vladimir Ducasse  has been more  of a project than expected,
 unable to crack the starting lineup in three seasons.
 Sanchez, the oft-criticized quarterback, was at his best in the playoffs during
 his  first  two  seasons,  winning  four  postseason  road  games  and  playing
 effectively in two AFC title game losses.
 The  perception is  that Sanchez  has regressed  substantially since  then. Two
 things  for certain  are that his protection has worsened and his receivers are
 less polished. Still, the erratic Sanchez hasn't taken the kind of step forward
 that  the franchise  had expected,  and  he hasn't  shown the  ability to  make
 players  around him better. Now he might even lose his job to McElroy, a former
 seventh-round draft pick.
 Compared  to the  Jets' playoff  teams  in 2009  and  2010, this  Jets team  is
 inferior in every phase. In fact, the 2012 Jets rank near the bottom of the NFL
 in passing offense, total offense, rushing defense and pass rush.
 A wild-card berth into the playoffs would put the Jets on the road for a first-
 round  game against an AFC divisional champion (New England, Baltimore, Houston
 or Denver). What are New York's chances of beating any of those teams?
 Here's  a hint:  The Jets  are 1-6  against teams  that are  currently .500  or
 better.  They've  been outscored 179-114  in those games.  Take away a 35-9 win
 over Indianapolis, and the Jets have been outscored 170-79 in the six losses to
 contending teams. Three of the defeats - the ones to San Francisco, Seattle and
 the home loss to New England - have been by a combined 85 points.
 Rather  than  staying the course  and being a  fringe contender, the Jets would
 benefit  from a makeover.  They have some good things to build around. If Revis
 returns  to  form from his  torn ACL next season,  he will combine with Antonio
 Cromartie to give the Jets' the top cornerback tandem in the league.
 Also,  recent  drafts have  given New York  potentially solid defensive linemen
 like  Muhammad  Wilkerson,  Quinton  Coples and  Kendrick  Ellis.  Mangold  and
 Ferguson could still be excellent building blocks for the offensive line. If he
 returns  from a foot  injury that has sidelined him most of this year, Santonio
 Holmes will again give the Jets a legitimate playmaker at wide receiver.
 Inside  linebacker  David Harris isn't worth  the $10.9 million salary the Jets
 would  owe  him next season,  but he's a solid  player. Demario Davis, a third-
 round  draft  pick this year, will  be the heir  apparent to Scott at the other
 inside linebacker spot.
 However,  the Jets  are in desperate need of a pass rushing outside linebacker,
 with  Pace  and Thomas likely  on their  way out. They  could also use youth at
 safety, and they clearly need playmakers and offensive line reinforcements.
 Since  Sanchez is  guaranteed $8.25 million next year, he will almost surely be
 back.  Still, it  would  behoove the  Jets  to  look for  his  successor. If  a
 legitimate  competitor for Sanchez's job (and, no, that doesn't mean McElroy or
 Tebow)  pushes him to  finally reach his potential, then it's a win-win for the
 Jets.  It  would be foolishly optimistic,  however, to ignore the position this
 offseason and just hope that Sanchez figures it out.
 With  so  many holes  to fill,  the best-case scenario  for the Jets' long-term
 success  would be a high draft pick in April. Georgia's Jarvis Jones looks like
 he'd  be the perfect  replacement for Pace, but Jones is probably going to come
 off the board in the top three picks. The Jets won't be drafting that high.
 If the Jets run the table and sneak into the playoffs as the No. 6 seed, needed
 rebuilding  will be  put on hold. Worse yet, the "deodorant" might falsely give
 the  Jets' front  office the idea that  they are still a win-now team that just
 needs a couple of roster tweaks to finally experience its Super Bowl dreams.
 If New York somehow sneaks into the playoffs, it would draft no higher than No.
 Realistically,  the Jets'  biggest obstacle  to reaching  the playoffs  will be
 their  need  to run the table.  Even though none  of their final four games are
 daunting,  the Jets'  mistake-prone, inconsistent  play makes  it difficult  to
 envision them finishing the regular season with a five-game winning streak.
 However, let's say that they do win out and end up 9-7. In that scenario, their
 projected win over Buffalo would guarantee the Bills at least eight losses.
 The  Miami Dolphins are 5-7, but they have road games against San Francisco and
 New England on their remaining schedule. At least eight losses are likely.
 The  Cincinnati  Bengals are  7-5.  If  they lose  their  final  two games  (at
 Pittsburgh  and home  against Baltimore), that would give the Jets a tiebreaker
 edge over them on the basis of better conference record.
 The  Indianapolis Colts are in the driver's seat for a wild card at 8-4. Still,
 they have both meetings with Houston still on the schedule. If the Colts end up
 9-7  --  which would require  an additional loss  to either Tennessee or Kansas
 City  -- the  Jets would beat them  in a tiebreaker by virtue of a head-to-head
 The Pittsburgh Steelers are 7-5, with the return of Ben Roethlisberger still up
 in the air. Provided they finish at least 9-7, they'd win a tiebreaker over the
 Jets  because of  their head-to-head win in  Week 2. Then again, New York could
 still  make  the playoffs along  with Pittsburgh, provided  the Jets go 9-7 and
 knock  out Miami,  Cincinnati and  Indianapolis in  the tiebreakers  mapped out
 Hey, if you're a Jets fan, you're in a quandary. Watching your team bounce back
 from a 4-7 record to get to the postseason would be a considerable achievement.
 It  would be kind  of interesting to see a team that has been this year's media
 whipping boy get the last laugh.
 On  the  other hand,  a Jets postseason  run would figure  to be a one-and-done
 situation.  Worse yet, it could prevent the franchise from making the wholesale
 changes it needs to have a chance to become a legitimate championship contender
 in the future.
 Jeff  Saukaitis  is a  former  Sports  Network  writer/editor  who has  been  a
 professional sports writer since 1985.
 12/04 09:43:54 ET

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