By Jeff Capellini
In the aftermath of the competitive loss last week up in New England, a lot of people came away feeling that while there may not necessarily be a shift in power underway in the AFC East, the distance between the Jets and Patriots is at least closing a bit.
That’s all well and good, but if we’ve learned anything about the Jets over the last several decades, they are just as good as their next game’s result. A positive step forward one week can easily turn into crushing regression the next.
And in the grand scheme of things, the 30-23 defeat to the Patriots last Sunday was, indeed, a step forward if for no other reason than the Jets definitely now have Tom Brady and Bill Belichick’s undivided attention.
But that’s where the back-slapping should cease. The fact remains it will take an act of God for the Jets to win the AFC East. That to me would be the ultimate sign of any kind of real change in the division. There’s still a significant gap between the teams, one the Jets have to prove they can close some more before the teams hook up again in late December.
The Jets are a much improved football team, perhaps one that will not only make the playoffs, but also do some damage once there. The schedule seems to suggest they could be a double-digit win team and grab the lead wild-card spot.
But that doesn’t mean they will automatically handle the up-and-coming Raiders this week.
The Jets simply haven’t earned that kind of benefit of the doubt. Just because they played well against a superior opponent last weekend doesn’t mean they’ll beat up a team they should beat this weekend. That’s the skepticism that comes with following a franchise that is 72 games below .500 in the regular season over its 55-plus year existence.
Despite all of the positives that have been apparent over the first six games, the Jets really still haven’t played a complete 60 minutes. If they had they’d be undefeated and atop all rationally-conceived power rankings right now.
I’m not kidding. NFL guru Peter King’s MMQB column this week ranks the Jets sixth. The five ahead of them? You guessed it, all undefeated.
The Jets didn’t show up for a good 25 minutes against the Eagles in Week 3 and made crucial mistakes in the fourth quarter last week against the Patriots. If they had completed what they had started in each instance they’d be 6-0 and not 4-2.
And even in the majority of their wins they needed a wake-up call at some point before proving that their opponents really didn’t belong on the same field with them.
Sure, there are no style points in the NFL. A win is most assuredly a win. But sooner or later the Jets will need to be a more efficient operation, one that doesn’t let overmatched opponents hang around — and there will be plenty such foes on the docket in the weeks to come. You can make the argument that the Jets should be favored in every game they play into mid-December. The potential for a 10-to-12-win season is as real as the beard on Ryan Fitzpatrick’s face.
But, again, that’s all in theory.
The fact of the matter is the Jets will play another classic trap game on Sunday. The Raiders (3-3) have been up and down, but they are exciting and beginning to believe in themselves. They have a good, young player at each of the vital skill positions. Derek Carr has completed nearly 66 percent of his passes and has 11 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Rookie wideout Amari Cooper is on pace for 80-plus receptions and well over 1,000 yards. Running back Latavius Murray is averaging 4.4 yards per carry and will likely end up with the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his short career.
Look, no one is going to confuse these three with All-Pros who put up PlayStation numbers on a yearly basis, but the point is these aren’t your older brother’s Raiders. They play hard and that stadium remains one of the more intimidating venues in the sport. The “Black Hole” is as loud now as it has been in some time.
The Jets really cannot afford to give it reasons to get any louder.
I’m not that concerned about the Jets’ defense. The unit did a good job against Brady and the Patriots, short of that brutal 3rd-and-17 conversion on the game-deciding drive. I expect the defensive line to give Carr problems and to punch Murray in the mouth. I also expect Cooper to learn a lesson or two from the master, Darrelle Revis.
What does concern me is the Jets’ over-reliance on Chris Ivory. While he has become one of the better running backs in the league, as evidenced by his 5.0-yard-per-carry average and penchant for running angry and roughshod over anyone that gets in his way, there’s no getting around the fact that he’s a bit fragile physically.
Ivory has been plagued by nagging injuries throughout his tenure with the Jets, and while the ailments haven’t been season-threatening they have thrown a monkey wrench into the Jets’ approach from time to time. This season, Chan Gailey’s offense has been nowhere near as efficient when Ivory has been on the sidelines. The Jets become complacent and put too much faith in Fitzpatrick, who is having a very good season, but is prone to power outages — if not turnovers — when what is needed is the sticks to be constantly moving.
Of course, the Jets need major production from Ivory, but they can’t get bogged down when he’s not on the field. And from what we know he tends to get nicked up and miss snaps. That problem is compounded by the fact that Bilal Powell and Zac Stacy are not No. 1 running backs in this league. While each one does a lot right, neither has game-changing ability.
Knowing all of this, it will be interesting to see what kind of game plan Gailey puts together against an Oakland defense that is No. 3 against the run (allowing 84.3 yards per game) and dead last against the pass (303.8 per game). Should he ask Fitzpatrick to drop back 40 times? I say no, so execution up front is going to be a must so there can be some semblance of balance.
The other concern is special teams. Nick Folk aside, the Jets have a very weak unit. Their return game is non-existent and punting/coverage has left a lot to be desired. The Patriots were set up with excellent field position a lot last Sunday. The Jets can get away with it against some teams, but if this season is going to go where many think it can that group needs to get better.
By no means am I trying to be negative for the sake of needing something to complain about. The Jets are most certainly on an upward trajectory. But it wouldn’t take much to start a nosedive. Losing to a team like the Raiders after failing to seal the deal in a winnable game against their most hated rivals would be a major punch to the gut.
The Jets are built to hand out punishment. They cannot afford to take a round off. Let’s hope that’s not Sunday’s lesson.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet