By Jeff Capellini
What’s more impressive, the Jets scoring 76 points over the last two weeks or the fact that they didn’t blow either game?
Todd Bowles was right, his team last year and the year before likely would have found a way to lose to the Colts this past Sunday. The game had “typical Jets” written all over it. Those moments of hope that you figured were just too good to be true were ready to be replaced by an overrated defense or perhaps an offense that has traditionally played not to lose with a lead.
While I’m on the subject, that whole snatching defeat from the jaws of victory thing is something the Jets pretty much perfected over the previous 40 years. The four AFC Championship game appearances are often overlooked because when this team has been good, it has never really lasted that long.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that something sort of righteous is happening right now with this team. The Jets (3-3) are, indeed, on a path to respectability, probably a good year before anyone thought possible.
Again, as I’ve said time after time in this space, I think the idea of the Jets making the playoffs this season is about as wishful thinking as you can possibly conjure, but there’s no denying they not only have a watchable quality, they’re fun.
Throughout their many-decade search for a franchise quarterback, the Jets have put an unreasonable amount of pressure on their defense. They have never been that good at putting points on the scoreboard. That lack of direction and cohesiveness on offense has often left an ill-equipped “D” to fend for itself, with only the slightest margin for error.
So far this season, the Jets’ defense has been pedestrian as far as yards allowed, yielding 381 per game, good enough for just 21st in the league. But it has been very opportunistic, forcing 12 fumbles, which is tied for second, and recovering five (tied for fourth), to go along with 10 interceptions (tied for second). As far as getting pressure on the quarterback, their 14 sacks are nowhere near the league lead, but they have been disruptive in terms of QB hits despite not having a real complement to Leonard Williams on the line.
The offense, on the other hand, has been better than expected, highlighted by a ground game that is seventh in the league, averaging 130.3 yards per game. That production has bought time for rookie quarterback Sam Darnold to get his feet under him. Though he struggled in two of the three games during the Jets’ losing streak from Weeks 2-4, he has bounced back nicely since, throwing for 467 yards, five touchdowns and just two interceptions during their current winning streak, New York’s first in more than a year.
Naturally, Darnold has had his moments of pause, occasionally forcing throws. But name me a quarterback, regardless of his age, who hasn’t. He has mostly been smart about throwing balls away under duress and we are beginning to see his accuracy, especially on deeper patterns. What was a series of check-downs and screen passes during the losing streak turned into more aggressive looks downfield over the last two weeks.
Take the final drive of the first half against the Colts as the perfect example. Bowles and offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates easily could have taken a knee and been content with a seven-point lead at the intermission, but they went against this team’s usual grain. Darnold led the Jets 58 yards in six plays and needed just 29 seconds to do it. Jason Myers’ 32-yard field goal made it 23-13, which was huge because New York used that momentum after getting the ball to start the third to march 72 yards in just five plays, capped by rookie tight end Chris Herndon’s 32-yard catch and run.
That forced the Colts to play uphill for the rest of the game. Though Andrew Luck took advantage of the fact that the Jets were down three key players due to injures (corners Trumaine Johnson and Buster Skrine, plus safety Marcus Maye), Bates’ offense was in a rhythm and it continued to answer with points of its own.
I’m sure the fact that the Jets had to settle for seven field goals will bother some, but 35 points by the offense is still 35 points by the offense. Throw in that opportune defense that I was talking about earlier (three INTs, including one returned for a TD, and a fumble recovery) and the production on both sides of the ball was more than enough.
So are the Jets actually a good football team? Well, the litmus test is coming this Sunday with the arrival of the Super Bowl-hopeful Vikings (3-2-1). I assure you, New York will not be seeing another Denver or Indianapolis when Minnesota takes the field at MetLife Stadium.
The Vikes are loaded offensively. Kirk Cousins is off to a tremendous start with nearly 2,000 yards passing, 12 TDs and just three picks in six games, and receiver Adam Thielen has looked like the best receiver in the game, leading the NFL with 58 receptions and 712 yards. He has at least 100 yards in every game this season.
Stefon Diggs’ 40 catches and 435 yards are also far better than any Jets receiver.
Defensively, Minnesota should probably be better defensively as it sits in the middle of the pack in yards allowed (360 per game) and has given up nearly 25 points per game, but still has some very good players in shutdown corner Xavier Rhodes, free safety Harrison Smith and defensive end Danielle Hunter, who is tied with Houston’s J.J. Watt for the league lead with 7.0 sacks.
A few weeks ago, nobody would have given the Jets a chance in this game. But like I’ve said many times, the NFL is a strange league. Parity is still the order of the day.
Bowles’ boys don’t necessarily have to win Sunday to further show the corner is in their rear-view.
Read more columns by Jeff Capellini and follow him on Twitter at @JCapGLJ