By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns
Considering what happened in the last four years of the Rex Ryan era, and considering where the 7-5 Jets stand now, it’s hard to believe any game on the 2015 schedule would be viewed as a trap game.
And yet, here they are, thick in the AFC wildcard race, a huge contest against the East-leading Patriots coming up in two weeks, and a 3-9 Titans squad coming into MetLife Stadium on Sunday.
Normal folks might set their minds to sending an early message northward at Tennessee’s expense, or at least use this and next week’s opportunity against only slightly less woeful Dallas to pad their record before meeting Bill Belichick’s evil minions. They would prepare to the hilt, and then strike with full effect to blow out the AFC South weaklings.
Of course, that’s not what usually happens. Football players are not normal people. It’s the reason the Redskins fell to a floundering Cowboys team in a perfectly horrible Monday night game this week, even as they had a chance to stretch their division lead over the Giants and Philadelphia.
It’s why so many playoff contenders fall victim to some bottom-dweller and double their anxiety level.
It’s why coaches call games like Titans-Jets a trap.
It’s why Todd Bowles will probably watch his guys fall right into that snare. They may end up winning to ensure themselves of a .500 season, but no one will be surprised if this game is one sloppy affair.
And Bowles, like every other head coach, will be thoroughly perplexed afterward, even as he realizes that his football team was acting like a football team.
In other words, players overlook.
They can’t help it, really. It’s part of their DNA. As hyper-competitive people, they want to beat the best. The macho mentality of the locker room necessitates taking down the top dog. Those who have fallen well short of that status — like the Titans — are simply meant to be brushed to side like fallen leaves on a sidewalk.
And all the coach talk in the world won’t change that.
Bowles will try, of course. He hasn’t hung any mousetraps around the locker room as his friend and mentor Bill Parcells used to do. To anyone’s knowledge, he hasn’t given any “Rock in the Road” speeches like the ones former Giants coach Jim Fassel would issue, which would often be followed with a postgame exclamation, “We hit the bleepin’ rock!”
It is virtually certain, however, that he has used the dreaded P-word, at least as a passing reference. It’s a necessary danger. He would be doing his players a disservice by ignoring the fact that the Jets’ overtime win over the Giants last week put them smack in the wildcard race with Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Houston.
The Jets know they have to keep winning to stay in that pack, but players’ eyes get all dreamy when coaches mention the postseason. The focus, so necessary even against the weakest of teams, blurs the here and now.
None of that would have grave consequences if a team like the Titans was simply the one seen on paper — a down-on-its-luck franchise that fired head coach Ken Whisenhunt seven games in, led by a rookie quarterback.
But the Titans are somewhat deeper than that. Their defense is ranked eighth in the league, and they are coming off their first success in four games, a 42-39 win over Jacksonville that snapped an 11-game home losing streak. Quarterback Marcus Mariota — yeah, the rookie — took a scramble 87 yards for a touchdown in that one.
The Titans now have the crazy idea that they aren’t anyone’s doormat despite their awful record.
They would like nothing better than to spoil the Jets’ season.
That, too, is the nature of the player. It makes a struggling team dangerous.
The Jets have said all the right things.
“It’s not a trap game, it’s the next game.”
“We’re not a good enough team to overlook anyone.”
Yada, yada, yada.
But unless the molecular profile of the professional football player has changed over the past five days, rest assured that this will not be the easy win any right-thinking person would anticipate.
Bowles wants desperately to avoid the trap, watch his team win a third consecutive game for the first time since 2011, and stay at the front of the wildcard pack.
It may happen. But it probably won’t come easily, or with great style.
When it comes to traps, the Jets may prove to be no different than any other team.
They all fall for them at one time or another.
They can’t help themselves. They’re football players. It’s in their DNA.
Follow Ernie on Twitter at @ErniePalladino