Its funny how one game completely changed perceptions of the Jets' entire season leading up to this. Prior to Monday night they were a gritty team led by a find-a-way quarterback in Mark Sanchez who always found ways to pull games out at the end. By Tuesday morning they were a team whose mediocrity had been hidden by their lucky escapes. Given the parity that exists in the NFL, I think anyone that's won nine games in twelve tries is pretty good and am not set to dismiss Rex Ryan's team just yet. They rank third in the AFC in defense and are tied for sixth in offense (I use points scored/allowed as the basis for ranking, not yardage accumulated, as the standard media reference point is. I've never understood that, as the last time I checked they keep score with points). The defensive ranking should allay concerns that this unit is no longer championship-caliber and they score enough points to win. The remaining schedule has home games with Miami and Buffalo, and difficult road trips to Chicago and Pittsburgh. The tiebreaker situation is this--they've split head-to-head with New England and hold the same divisional record. Any realistic scenario for the Jets winning the division presumes them winning their final four games, so we'll make that assumption for the sake of a tiebreaker discussion. The Patriots play at Buffalo and against Miami the final two weeks and losses in either of those games would give NYJ the superior division record and hand them the division title. There are differing possibilities for the third tiebreaker of common opponents based on what happens with New England's next two games with Chicago and Green Bay. But clearly the Jets have a good shot if they win out. It's actually getting those wins in Pittsburgh and Chicago that's the main challenge.
Baltimore's offense is the problem, where they rank 10th in the AFC. This is the answer is to why they can't put teams away, an issue addressed by the players after Sunday night's devastation and by the hard-core football fans in the office where I work in Owings Mills, MD, nearby the franchise's headquarters. They rank 2nd in defense. Tiebreaker-wise they have problems. They lost to Cincinnati early in the year, so they trail Pittsburgh in division record. The Steelers have to lose to either Cincinnati this week or at Cleveland in the finale. If that happens, and Baltimore wins out, they would take the common opponents tiebreaker. The schedule for the latter is doable--they play at Houston on Monday night, at home against New Orleans, at Cleveland and Cincinnati. Not easy, particularly the Saints and the road date with the Browns, but I lean toward thinking they'll pull it off. Getting the help is where the problem lies.
In the playoffs, the Jets are the volatile team who can go either way. They can make enough plays to beat anybody, but Monday night showed clearly they can pull a tank job. Baltimore is the consistent team, who shows up steady each week, has won on the road (in New York, in New England, in Pittsburgh), but the problem is they've become a team with the disease of "almost, not quite good enough." Their games with Pittsburgh are instructive. Over the last three years they've played seven times (including the '08 AFC Championship Game). Every single game has been nip-and-tuck. Baltimore's record in those games is 2-5. In games where Ben Roethlisberger plays, the record goes to 0-5. Most of the time in close games, I'm inclined to the view that things will balance out. When something happens five times in a row, it's clear there's something in the way these teams operate that gives Pittsburgh an edge in close games. I'm not at all certain what that is, but its John Harbaugh's job to figure it out by January. If he does, Baltimore can do it. I'm less optimistic about Rex Ryan's prospects for another big run out of the wild-card slot.
Image from nytimes.com
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary in college football ,game analysis in the NFL. and coverage of college basketball. He is the author of The Last New Year's, a book that revisits the historic high points of college football's New Year's Day bowl games.