By Ernie Palladino
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The Jets graduated Sunday.
They beat a real good Saints team, led by a real good quarterback in Drew Brees, 26-20, through timely offense and fantastic defense.
And this time, they did it on their own. No strange calls by officials. No push plays that weren’t even on the books last year.
Just good, old-fashioned football. And the best part for Rex Ryan was that he got to beat his defensive coordinator brother Rob. Again.
Rex is 7-3 career against Rob, which sort of tells you who wears the headsets in that family. But better than that, the 5-4 record the Jets attained against one of the best teams in football officially stamps them as bona fide playoff contenders.
That win changed the conversation, from the “Wait-and-see” of 4-4 to “Just how far can this team go?” of 5-4.
And washed away was the memory of last week’s debacle in Cincinnati, replaced by the future hope that games like Sunday will become ever more prevalent over the last seven games.
It might help if the Jets play offense and defense the same way. Offensively, they did not put the game in Geno Smith’s hands. Instead, the went back to the old ground-and-pound that took them to two AFC Championship games when Smith’s predecessor, Mark Sanchez, was managing games. The Jets compiled 198 yards on the ground, with Chris Ivory collecting 139 of them, and Ivory and Smith accounting for two touchdowns.
Smith threw just 19 passes, completed eight for 115 yards. No, he won’t make the Pro Bowl with those numbers, but who cares? The idea for Ryan, a coach looking ever more like he’ll survive past this season, is to win games. And if that means keeping his rookie thrower’s arm tethered to his waist, then so be it.
Actually, the way the defense played, Smith didn’t have to throw much more than he did. The Jets’ strongest unit all season, it put together one of its best games. Brees did complete 30 passes for 382 yards and two touchdowns, but they also picked him off twice. It would have been three times if not for a defensive holding call in the third quarter.
Muhammad Wilkerson and Calvin Pace reached him only twice for sacks — on consecutive third-quarter plays — but Wilkerson and Quinton Coples were steady visitors in the backfield. They harassed Brees, made him waste time, forced him into mistakes.
Never were they as effective as in that third-quarter series. With the Saints down 23-14, the fun started when Antonio Cromartie grabbed what should have been his second interception off a deflected ball. That was called back on the defensive hold.
Then, Coples batted Brees’ throw on second down and Wilkerson nearly came up with an interception off that. Then came the two sacks to create a third-and-38 situation.
Brees being Brees, he did complete a 13-yard throw to Jimmy Graham, allowing Garrett Hartley to hit a 55-yard field goal to turn it into a one-score game. But the Saints never did catch up.
Not that they didn’t have a chance. They were fourth-and-a-chain-link at the Jets’ 36 after Brees missed on a short throw. Brees tried a handoff to tight end Josh Brown, but Coples barreled in and stopped him eight yards behind the line.
Hartley added another field goal shortly thereafter, but the Saints would creep no closer. One last chance remained, but it hardly rose to the dignity of a true opportunity. A holding call put the Saints back at the their 10. After two incompletions, Coples stormed in on fourth-and-19, grabbed Brees around the waste, and forced his harmless, final pass to dive into the MetLife Stadium turf.
This was how the Jets used to win games circa 2010 — hard-nosed defense, good ground game.
Along the way, they knocked the fast Darren Sproles from the game, and temporarily put the ever-dangerous tight end Graham on the sidelines with a bad elbow.
The schedule gets slightly softer after the upcoming bye. The Jets need to maintain their toughness on defense and continue to control the line of scrimmage on offense.
If Ryan has anything between his ears, he’ll turn Sunday’s game into the blueprint for the rest of the season. If his team follows that plan, they just might be building themselves a playoff team.
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