By Jeff Capellini
Forget about winning out, for now. Just focus on the game at hand.
That’s what the Jets say they plan to do.
With three weeks left in the NFL’s regular season, an eternity by any league’s standards, the narrative surrounding this team has switched dramatically, from just asking for a solid 60 minutes to now demanding wins at all costs, any way possible.
It’s stress that the Jets, to a man, said Monday they will avoid.
“We have to take care of our business,” wide receiver Eric Decker said, “and that’s all that we can control.”
And let’s be honest. Even if somehow the Jets do run the table and finish 11-5, but don’t make the playoffs, will anyone have the right to complain?
Some are forgetting that this team was 4-12 last year, a crushing season that led to a complete front office and coaching staff makeover, followed by an extensive roster overhaul. I get that the NFL is a league where things can turn around quickly, but that’s usually reserved for teams that have winning in their DNA.
The Jets tend to be the opposite. Historically, they’ve been more miss than hit, and considering the previous four years their current success is not something that should be taken for granted by anybody.
An 11-win team missing the playoffs has happened just twice since 1978, the year the NFL switched to a 16-game schedule and expanded the playoff field. The John Elway-led Denver Broncos fell victim to tiebreaker madness in 1985 and the New England Patriots, a franchise that has won at least 11 games in 12 of the last 15 seasons, suffered a similar fate in 2008.
So it stands to reason that a potential slip-up by the Kansas City Chiefs or Pittsburgh Steelers, the teams that share the Jets’ 8-5 record but would beat them out for the two wild card slots if all three win out, is possible. But that, first and foremost, shouldn’t be the mindset with three games to play. A lot can happen between now and the end of Week 17.
This is a league that is ruled by parity, injuries and the play of stars. It’s quite possible that a team or two firmly ensconced in a playoff position right now could end up on the outside looking in three weeks from now.
Are you convinced the Cincinnati Bengals will win enough of their games without Andy Dalton and possibly Tyler Eifert? What about the Brock Osweiler-led Broncos, who were just held to 12 points in a home loss to the under-.500 Oakland Raiders?
Todd Bowles’ team simply needs to put all of its energy into playing another solid hour of football this Saturday against the Dallas Cowboys. Or else all of this playoff talk will be pointless. They need to be the first team to 9-5. That way the Chiefs and Steelers have a little more to think about before playing the Baltimore Ravens and Broncos, respectively, on Sunday.
It’s important to note that the Jets have really only played one great game this season. I don’t know if Sunday’s 30-8 victory over the Tennessee Titans means they are now worthy of being grouped with the best in the AFC, but I do know it’s dangerous to ratchet up expectations off of one good effort, especially when the team involved is still learning how to win.
The Jets have to find a way to win in Dallas, which they have done just once in three attempts dating to the first meeting between the teams back in 1971. And that victory happened 16 years ago. And while it’s true the Cowboys have struggled through a horrendous season filled with key injuries and epic failures on both sides of the ball, they’ll almost certainly come to play just based on pride alone.
For the Jets, playing a prime time game in front of 80,000 people inside AT&T Stadium and God only knows how many millions more at home represents the ultimate opportunity to show the country what they are truly capable of.
“This is the week for veterans to really step up and put their foot on the pedal and push everybody because Dallas is going to give us their best shot,” wide receiver Brandon Marshall said.
A win Saturday would set the stage for madness at MetLife next week when the hated Patriots come to town. The Jets are a better team than the one that lost 30-23 in Foxboro back on Oct. 25, a game New York had in its grasp in the second half before ill-timed mistakes turned the tide to the home side.
And if that’s not enough, the Jets conclude the regular season in Buffalo. Rex Ryan selling out to beat his former team is a mortal lock, regardless if the Bills still have a shot at a playoff berth or not. Odds are they won’t, but that won’t make a lick of difference. Rex and the Bills will treat that game like their Super Bowl.
I love what the Jets have done this season. They have a general manager in Mike Maccagnan who does a nice job balancing the urgency to win now with his vision for the future, and a head coach in Bowles who generally makes good decisions and has gone out of his way to hold players accountable. In Ryan Fitzpatrick, they have a quarterback for the first time in ages and run a 21st century offense for the first time in the 21st century. They have a defense that is littered with potential stars and no ceiling on its potential.
There’s a ridiculous amount to like here.
What’s left to do is not necessarily make the playoffs, though of course that’s the goal. What’s more important is avoiding a repeat of events that have plagued Decembers past. Countless times the Jets have carried playoff hopes into the final month of the regular season only to see records like 8-5 and 9-4 vanish due to a lack of know-how and execution, combined with an overabundance of stupidity.
I never thought a day would come when I would suggest the Jets try to emulate the Arizona Cardinals, but times have changed. For a long time the Jets and Cardinals were mirror images of each other as far as ineptitude was concerned. That’s clearly no longer the case out in the desert.
In the event the Jets play well over the next three weeks but don’t make the playoffs, they should look at what the Cardinals have done since 2013. That season they were coming off a 5-11 disappointment and went 10-6, a tremendous turnaround, only to miss the postseason tournament. They followed that up by going 11-5 last season before falling in the wild card round to Carolina. This season they are likely going to vanquish the reigning champion Seattle Seahawks and take the NFC West, and could very well find themselves playing the Panthers again, this time with a Super Bowl berth on the line.
Arizona’s head coach is Bruce Arians. His former protege is Todd Bowles. None of this is coincidental.
The Jets are built to make that kind of progression as well. Next year should be better than this year. The year after that? Who knows.
The bottom line is the ridiculous postseason scenarios that present themselves this day can quickly be rendered null and void on any of the three given Sundays to come.
Play the game, win the game, reload for next week.
That’s the only playoff math that matters.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @GreenLanternJet