By Jeff Capellini, CBSNewYork/WFAN.com
NEW YORK (WFAN) — The last thing I want to do here is rain on the Jets’ early parade. This is a good football team that has shown a flair for the dramatic, a penchant for making big plays and appears to possess the mental focus needed to handle any and all situations.
But, of course, the Jets have played just two games against teams, frankly, they absolutely had to beat. If they had lost to either the Cowboys or the Jaguars all hell would have broken loose in Rex Ryan land, considering all the expectations thrust upon this franchise since the second half rally in Pittsburgh fell short last January.
Which is why the next five weeks could very well tell the tale of this regular season. Can the Jets play 3-2 or 2-3 football and still make the playoffs? Yes. But any idea of winning the AFC East will go out the window. The Patriots are that good and I don’t think there’s a defense out there, besides the Jets’, that can stop them. That’s not because there aren’t teams capable. It’s just that the Jets are the only team that really has.
The Jets are not built to simply get into the playoffs as a wild card. They have been constructed to win the division, get home-field advantage and get to the Super Bowl. And though I hate a world of absolutes, them be the facts, Jack.
And as we all know, the Jets have done nothing but make their lives very difficult in the postseason the last two seasons because they have been forced to play six playoff games on the road. I’m a firm believer in the fact that the Jets play better on the road. The reasons for this are hard to explain, but it seems like they simply come together better as a unit and bear down to handle the tasks at hand when they don’t feel comfortable.
But that aside, there’s no law against taking MetLife Stadium out for a spin in January and seeing what it can do. The postseason atmosphere in your own building dwarfs what it’s like in the regular season and the idea of the Jets actually having a week off before having to get back to work should appeal to just about everyone.
Ask the Steelers what playing at Heinz Field is like fully rested. I was there. Trust me, I know. I don’t know if MetLife can match Heinz in intensity, but I’d sure like to find out, as should any Jets player, coach or fan.
So for the Jets to put themselves in position to win the AFC East and further their cause toward getting some home games in the playoffs, they really cannot afford a hiccup in any of their next three games, which are all on the road and do not contain one gimme. They will start this pivotal stretch in Oakland this weekend, and not against the Raiders they destroyed out there two years ago.
After that game, they head to Baltimore and New England. I shouldn’t have to say much about the importance of either matchup. One is conference rival that’s owned the Jets throughout their existence and the other is the team that many believe could win anywhere from 14-16, yes, 16, games this regular season.
And when the Jets are done with that three-pronged minefield they get to come home and face Miami, which is never easy as any look back through history will tell you, and then San Diego, which is loaded offensively and likely will win the AFC West by a comfortable margin.
If the idea is winning the division, the Jets cannot afford to be any worse than maybe 5-2 heading into their Week 8 bye, and that’s pushing it. Forget the fact that after that week off they have to travel to new and improved Buffalo and then deal with the Patriots again. It’s way too early to look that far ahead. It’s probably way too early to look past this weekend, but so much is expected of this team it doesn’t hurt to remind everyone involved of what’s just around the corner and the ramifications of anything less than what we’ve grown to expect.
Now, you can look at the Jets’ 32-3 win over Jacksonville this past Sunday and beat your chest. They did a lot of things right. But the sheer number of positives does not in any way vastly outweigh the concerns. There are many.
The majority of this team’s ills are on the offensive side of the ball, the side that’s supposed to be the difference this time around between falling a half short and getting to the final game of the season.
And with that, we need to clear something up right here and now. The fans better get used to the idea that “ground and pound” is basically on its last legs. That is, it’s never going to gain any traction as a team-wide concept and public rallying cry without a cohesive offensive line. And right now, the Jets have anything but a cohesive offensive line.
The Jets have rushed for 146 yards in two games, or 3.04 per carry, a far cry from the rock-solid 4.45 season average from a year ago. The Jaguars, like the Cowboys before them, lived in the Jets’ backfield and destroyed Gang Green’s road graters at the point of attack.
The right side of the line has been abysmal, with guard Brandon Moore and tackle Wayne Hunter looking completely lost. Compounding this problem has been two key injuries. All-world center Nick Mangold may not return before the first New England game due to a high-ankle sprain and capable and interchangeable backup Rob Turner isn’t expected back from his preseason injury until possibly Week 9.
The Jets’ coaching staff seems to realize the problem because quarterback Mark Sanchez has already thrown 68 passes. He averaged nearly 32 attempts per game last season, but part of the reason for that was because the Jets found themselves trailing an awful lot. That shouldn’t be the case this season because the defense should be a lot better and because the Jets now have quick strike capability with their revamped trio of wide receivers; they have LaDainian Tomlinson being used as a pass-catching threat, a role he’s excelled at for a decade; and they have apparently fallen in love again with tight end Dustin Keller.
But what will make all of this work more efficiently is the running game doing its thing. Right now, though, it’s not. This offensive line needs to come together and quickly because over the next three weeks the Jets will see serious defenses featuring crazy good tackles like Richard Seymour, Haloti Ngata and Albert Haynesworth, plus a slew of pure pass rushers that, if things don’t get better on the pass protection end as well, could mean Mark Brunell sightings, given Sanchez’s penchant for nagging injuries.
Right now, the Jets are asking Sanchez to do too much considering the talent on the offensive side of the ball. Balance cannot just be about an equal number of passing and running plays per game. It must become about production as well.
Defensively, the complaints are few, but just keep in mind the Cowboys moved the ball seemingly at will at times and the Jaguars may end up this season with the worst passing attack in the NFL, this side of Seattle.
The Raiders are an improved offensive club that seems to have something with Jason Campbell under center. The Ravens’ offense appears to have finally surpassed its defense in prowess. The Patriots have a guy I don’t want to even talk about who has thrown for close to 1,000 yards in two games. Make no mistake, the Jets’ vaunted defense will be put to the test over the next three weeks.
So far, the big fear of pressuring the quarterback has been alleviated, with six sacks in two games, but it’s that consistency within the many schemes that must continue. The run defense has been solid as it basically put the clamps on both Felix Jones and Jet killer Maurice Jones-Drew. The secondary has also been very good, with Antonio Cromartie bouncing back huge from a terrible opener to be the player of the game against the Jags and Kyle Wilson looking more and more like his offseason of Darrelle Revis boot camp was indeed a brilliant decision.
So as I said before, feel good about this team’s start. The bottom line is the Jets are where they should be. But just keep in mind that the road ahead will be perilous. The “Any Given Sunday” adage is always in play in the NFL.
There are still a lot of people out there that don’t think the Jets are all they are cracked up to be. That notion can quickly be put to bed simply by this team doing what its done consistently over the last few seasons, going into hostile territory and finding a way.
Winning this division is going to be all about what the Jets do, not what any other team does against the Patriots. They simply cannot afford to count on anyone else but themselves.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini
What do you expect from the Jets over the next three games? Please offer your thoughts in the comments section below.