By Ernie Palladino
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The Jets may drive even their most ardent supports stark, raving mad this year.
If Monday night’s 27-19 loss to the Bears was any indication, the facts stand thusly:
— Geno Smith’s arrow is definitely pointing up, but that may not be enough to get them into the postseason if he continues to make periodic mistakes like his opening drive pick-six or that third-quarter end zone interception with his team down 24-13.
— If the Jets continue to fail to score touchdowns once inside the 20, they will suffer horribly.
— The defense, excellent against the run, simply cannot afford lapses like leaving tight end Martellus Bennett wide open in the middle of the field for a touchdown when games are still within reach, no matter the personnel deficiencies of the secondary.
If these things continue, the Jets will wind up no better than last year, which means another season watching others play in January. Consider, too, the fact that such a finish will precipitate changes at the top, namely, Rex Ryan.
Worse than anything, they’ll prove themselves strong enough to stay with good teams, but just bad enough to fall short.
A big tease, in other words. So near, and yet so far. And that’s the worst way to lose.
Then again, there are still 13 games to play, and a lot can change for the better in that span. Who knows? Perhaps Smith’s maturation process will advance to a point where people will mention his name in the same sentence as another young quarterback such as Andrew Luck, who seemed last week to have no trouble throwing the ball into the end zone with great efficiency. Maybe the defense, already strong against the run, will find consistency in its back line and prevent people like the Bears from marching at will on key possessions.
This is not the case now, however, and now is what counts. Detroit comes up next, complete with an offensive arsenal led by Calvin Johnson and Matt Stafford. If the Jets couldn’t figure out a way to keep a recycled tight end like Bennett out of the end zone twice, odds are that the league’s top receiver won’t exactly need a map to find it, either.
The answer may lie in scoreboard numbers. The way things stack up, the 1-2 Jets might have to engage the Lions in a shootout, which means leaving even a single point on the field could turn fatal. Considering they all but leaped off a sheer cliff Monday in scoring just one touchdown in six trips inside the 20 — seven inside the 25 — the dangers are obvious.
It’s not like the Bears game was an anomaly, either. The 33.33 red-zone efficiency stats rank at the bottom of the league with the Jags, Bills and Cardinals. Through the first three games, the Jets have averaged four trips inside the 20, but have scored 1.3 touchdowns. That breaks down to four touchdowns in 12 possessions. Of those possessions, five others have resulted in field goals. They have come away empty on three others, two of which came on Monday.
This is not the way to win games. Even though Smith often makes some impressive throws between the 20s, he remains reckless from in close. His attempt to thread that third-quarter end zone throw from the Chicago 18 was all but placed in Kyle Fuller’s hands. His final, fourth-down throw to Jeremy Kerley in the back of the end zone never had a chance of being caught inbounds.
As for the defense, it has proved itself stout against the run. It’s against the passing game where immediate improvement is needed. If they thought Alshon Jeffery was a handful, wait until Antonio Allen and Darrin Walls get a load of Megatron.
They’ve lost two straight now, and the road won’t get any easier over the next month. Smith, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg, and Ryan have to figure out the red zone thing right away. The personnel-depleted secondary needs to get Dee Milliner back, or at least find a way to proceed without him.
If none of that happens, the plain fact is the Jets will be just good enough to fail.
That will drive their supporters nuts. And that’s the most painful way to miss the playoffs.
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