It was a down year for the AFC. Rewind to last season. The 11-5 New England Patriots watched the playoffs on their couches. At 9-7, Jets did the same after collapsing. As the New York Post's Mike Vaccaro pointed out this week, the '09 Jets finished with the same record as the Eric Mangini and Brett Favre '08 Jets, but the atmosphere around the team is completely different today for obvious reasons. Hope abounds in Jets Nation. Just listen to the head coach: the Jets should be considered Super Bowl favorites!
Really, how good are Rex Ryan's Jets? A straight answer eludes me. The wild card playoff game in Cincinnati has been on my mind all week yet I can't get a good read on it. Maybe a good place to start is with an attempt to put the last two games of the regular season in perspective.
No one can answer the question of what the Jets record would be had the Colts and Bengals played all out instead of, in the Colts' case, surrendering and, in the Bengals case, giving it some effort for part of the game. But we can take an educated guess. The Jets would likely not be playing this week. I'd say 8-8.
The last time an opponent actually played hard four quarters, the Jets laid an all-time stinker: Dec. 20 vs Atlanta, a 10-7 home loss that at the time appeared to kill New York's playoff hopes.
Three weeks ago is ancient history in this wacky up-and-down league, but I can't forget that game. Here's why: for all the talk of the Jets' #1 defense and #1 running game, the performance against the Falcons would indicate the Jets' final mediocre record: they are good enough to beat most bad teams, good enough to compete against very good teams, and mediocre enough to lose games against equally matched clubs.
Throw away stats and rankings. The Jets struggle to score points when they are forced to drive the lengh of the field and their defense lacks an elite pass rusher and conventional pass rush, a weak spot that killed them as their defense crumbled in the 4th quarters at Miami and at home versus the Jaguars and Falcons. Moreover, the Jets' defense, with the exception of the first 2 ½ quarters at Indianapolis, hasn't been tested by a dangerous offense since Nov. 22 at New England. Gang Green's gaudy defensive statistics of late have to be kept in perspective.
So now that we've looked back, let's try to tackle this week's match-up: Jets versus Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium.
1) When the Jets have the ball: What else? Run, run, and run. But it won't be easy this time. The Bengals are still banged up (DT Pat Sims broke his arm last Sunday and LB Rey Maualuga was placed on IR), but the defense will welcome back DT Domata Peko and S Chris Crocker. Despite everything Sunday night, Cincy's run defense held RB Thomas Jones to fewer than three yards per carry. WR Brad Smith (4 carries, 92 yards, 1 TD) gashed ‘em out of the option formation . Expect the Bengals' usually stout run defense to be ready for the "Seminole" this time around. The key could be the explosive Shonn Greene, but he can be a fumble waiting to happen.
Bottom Line: In the wind and cold QB Mark Sanchez may be forced to make some plays. Bengals CBs Leon Hall and Johnathan Joseph are pretty good, but they may be locked up in man-to-man against the Jets wide receivers. Why? The Bengals haven't been getting much pressure on the QB lately without blitzing. Sanchez should get at least one shot to hit WR Braylon Edwards or recently invisible TE Dustin Keller deep.
2) When the Bengals have the ball: Run, run, and run. Like the Jets, head coach Marvin Lewis' club bases its success on running the football. Saturday afternoon's weather conditions may force both teams to keep it on the ground. The big difference will be RB Cedric Benson. A healthy scratch last week, Benson is rested and coming off his best season as a pro. Since Kris Jenkins went down, DT Sione Pouha has been the unsung hero of the Jets' run defense.
Look for QB Carson Palmer to take some shots deep. The Bengals will not shy away from CB Darrelle Revis. WR Chad Ochocinco, the team's only dangerous target, beat Revis a couple times last Sunday, but he dropped the passes. Palmer's stats were ugly in the 37-0 loss, but his receivers dropped at least three balls thrown right in their laps. Do you think the Bengals will ignore their most potent offensive weapon? Ochocinco will get his opportunities.
Bottom Line: The Bengals will have trouble moving the ball, too.
Prediction: I often say only fools try to predict the future, but here goes it anyway. The winner will score fewer than 20 points. With the weather imposing itself on the passing games and the respective defenses' stronger than their opposing offenses, this game could be decided by some crazy turnover or special teams gaffe. Punting to maintain good field position will be critical. If Sanchez is forced to pass in a catch-up role, the Jets will be in trouble.
Final Score: Jets 19 Bengals 17.