(CBSNY) — The New York Jets find themselves immersed in another typical Jets season. The campaign appeared to hold promise initially, with second-year quarterback Sam Darnold expected to make additional strides. But the team had injury issues far beyond what most NFL teams experience. Even Darnold, who somehow contracted mononucleosis, found himself sidelined for a few weeks. In that time, they lost backup Trevor Siemian for the season and resorted to trotting out recent practice-squader Luke Falk.
Darnold returned to a 1-4 team on the verge of collapse and led them to an upset of the Dallas Cowboys. His 23-32, 338-yard, two-touchdown performance brought hope, which the New England Patriots defense stepped all over the following week. The “seeing ghosts” shutout brought a jolt of reality, reminding everyone that this team was going nowhere. Two more losses followed, including one to the trying-to-lose Miami Dolphins.
The Jets have since turned another corner of sorts, dispensing with the New York Giants and trouncing the Washington Redskins. Neither of those wins proves anything beyond a basic football competency, though it is heartening to see Darnold dispel questions about his performance. The Jets’ run defense, allowing just 79.1 yards per game, certainly seems like the real deal as well. They’ll need even more strong play to take down an Oakland Raiders team with its eyes on the AFC West title.
It seems like a down year in the AFC West in general. The Kansas City Chiefs (7-4) have already lost as many games as they did last season. The Los Angeles Chargers (4-7) are already basically out of contention, thanks to injuries and inconsistent play. The Denver Broncos (3-7) can’t seem to hold a lead long enough to actually win. Only the Raiders (6-4), who ended last season with just four wins, can guarantee themselves a better finish.
“The Raiders have been surprising, right,” marvels CBS Denver sports anchor Michael Spencer. “And if the Chiefs had lost to the Chargers on Monday Night Football, they’d actually be leading the division in the AFC West, which, to me, is really kind of surprising, and probably says more about the way the AFC West has gone this year than it does as to how the Raiders have been playing.”
Still, Oakland deserves some credit for staying on track in a season that could have gone off the rails very early, given injuries and the Antonio Brown distraction. (Jets fans know how this works all too well.) And let’s not forget about the schedule, which has included five opponents who look like playoff contenders and three that currently lead their divisions. But that credit also deserves an asterisk, as the Raiders have lost four of their five games against those winning teams. Their wins, with one exception (the Indianapolis Colts) have come against losing teams.
The Raiders can and should beat the Jets if they stay focused. Derek Carr is completing over 70% of his passes. Josh Jacobs is on the verge of a 1000-yard season. And while the Raiders’ pass rush has only generated 25 sacks so far this season, 10 of them have come in the last two weeks. The Jets’ offensive line has struggled to protect Darnold, and every other Jets quarterback this season, giving up 41 sacks so far, second most in the NFL. Those struggles may very well continue.
But the Jets can also beat the Raiders, if their dependable run defense holds up, Darnold stays hot and Le’Veon Bell can break off a couple.
“I like the Raiders to get the win on the road in that one,” says Spencer. And a Raiders win will set up a matchup with the Chiefs in Week 13 for the AFC West lead. The Jets, meanwhile, are playing for pride and talent evaluation and, if you want to be honest, draft standing. But they do come in with one advantage: they are a team in a position to be overlooked, but with enough talent to actually win.
The Jets play the Raiders Sunday @ 1 p.m. on CBS.