Walls can be high, wide and thick. But they get knocked down in football all the time.
Take the "dreaded rookie wall." How many finely conditioned top draft picks get to this stage of their first NFL season and start to understand the body- and mind-numbing phenomenon that everyone asks them about?
Yet some never feel it. Jets DT Muhammad Wilkerson says he's one of them.
"I haven't hit any rookie wall, and I doubt I will," Wilkerson said at his locker late in the week. "I love the game of football. I love to come in every day, work hard and learn. So I doubt I'll hit that wall."
Then there's another kind of wall that Wilkerson and his Jets teammates find themselves confronting today as they take on the Buffalo Bills at MetLife Stadium. It's the first of a series of walls they must push through if they want to reach the goal they've talked about all season.
"It's a must-win game for us," said WR Santonio Holmes. "We know what's at stake right now. We have to come out firing just like we did against these guys the last game we played them. They've been in a little slump as well as we have. We know it's another game on the schedule and they get paid just as well as we do, so they're going to be ready to come out and put a real good stamp into our playoff chances. So we have to be on high alert right now."
It's a strange kind of alert the Jets and kindred spirits find themselves in at this time of year. At 5-5 they know they have to "play them one at a time." Yet the reality is that even one loss could be enough to knock them out of any tiebreaker competitions for an AFC Wild Card berth. Their margin of error has almost evaporated.
"Yeah, pretty much I'm surprised about that, no doubt," head coach Rex Ryan said Friday. "I never thought we'd be in this spot right now, but we are, so we can't do anything about it now. We have to win the rest of them. That's the mentality that we're taking."
5-1's Good, 6-0's Better
Ryan does acknowledge that "I feel pretty good about getting there at 5-1," but that would require several other teams to fall by the wayside to a 10-6 Jets squad. At the moment, Pittsburgh and Baltimore are riding high atop the AFC North, so one of them appears in line for the fifth seed. The Jets would have to pass the Bengals (6-4) and separate from the Broncos (5-5), who just defeated them two Thursdays ago, and the Titans (5-5), not to mention the Bills (5-5), to squeak in as the second WC for the second straight year under Ryan.
Now with the inconsistent way the offense has played, the defense's finishing problems in the losses at New England and Denver, and the special teams' recent turnover issues, some would say the Jets aren't a playoff-caliber team this season.
That, of course, is nonsense. As Bill Parcells, Ryan and many others have said over the years, you are what your record says you are. If the Jets can cobble together enough victories to make the playoff grid, they will be a postseason team, no apologies necessary. If they do that, they would have improved over those final six games and then they would once again attempt that difficult road of three playoff wins away from home.
Can the Jets clear these six hurdles in good shape? Why not? Every season since at least 2000 at least one AFC team has overcome a middling first half or first 10 games with a 5-1/6-0 closing kick to qualify for the playoffs. The list includes such as the 2001 Patriots (from 5-5 to 11-5 and on to Super Bowl victory) , the '03 Ravens (5-5 to 10-6), the '07 Chargers (5-5 to 11-5), and Ryan's first Jets team, the 2009 model that went from 4-6 to 9-7 and the fifth seed.
Bills: Banged Up but Still Hungry
But just because it can be done doesn't mean it will be done. That's where the Holmes approach comes into play big-time. The Jets can't afford to look past Buffalo, despite they're having beaten them in six of their last seven meetings, including by 27-11 at Ralph Wilson Stadium three weeks earlier, and despite the Bills coming into this game limping badly.
This week alone, RB Fred Jackson, WR Donald Jones and CB Terrence McGee were placed on injured reserve while starting S George Wilson and would-be starting WR Naaman Roosevelt have both been ruled out, as has K Rian Lindell, who hurt his shoulder trying to tackle the Jets' Joe McKnight during his long kickoff return earlier this month. C.J. Spiller assumes the tailback mantle, ex-Jet Brad Smith is expected to step up in the patchwork WR corps, and Dave Rayner will again handle the placekicking.
Another danger would be to overlook QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. In Buffalo's 5-2 start he was one of the NFL's darling signalcallers, but the Jets are smart enough to know that in five career games against the Harvard grad they've posted a 4-0 record and that since '09 the Ryan/Mike Pettine defense has held him to 43.4 percent accuracy, four TDs, four INTs and a 56.1 passer rating.
But they should also know Fitzy has far from thrown in the towel.
"We've had a good amount of guys go down but to be honest, the way that this team is structured a lot of the guys that have gotten the chance to play and to prove themselves had to do it by waiting their turn in line," Fitzpatrick said. "A lot of young guys that are hungry and ready to get out there are really looking forward to the opportunity."
As in the opportunity to bump off the Jets and repay the favors of the past three seasons. The Jets say they are aware of and ready for the challenge.
"I think it's going to be a difficult task," said C Nick Mangold. "When you watch them on film, they're still making some plays. It's going to be tough up front." Mangold has one of those potential playmakers in front of him in rookie NT Marcell Dareus.
Rookie's Recipe for a "W"
But the Jets can make it just as tough up front for the Bills in what may well be another run-based assault. In the five meetings of the Ryan regime, the Green & White have averaged 248.4 rushing yards a game and 5.6 a carry and have scored seven TDs. The Bills, conversely, have averaged 102.4 and 4.2 and have rushed for just one TD. It would be no surprise to see the Jets saddle up Shonn Greene (probable after suffering a rib injury at Denver), Joe McKnight, and perhaps LaDainian Tomlinson (questionable, knee) to control the clock and pull away from the Bills one last time.
"We've got to do a lot of what we did the first time we played them," said Wilkerson. "Dominate them up front, make them one-dimensional, and make them throw the ball against one of the best secondaries in the league. We do that and we can come out with a 'W,' definitely."
The Jets do that and they'll get past this first wall, one-sixth of the way to the NFL's playoff castle in which, once a team gains entry, anything is suddenly possible again.
"We've just got to play one game at a time. We can't look down the road," said Wilkerson, wise beyond his NFL seasons and getting stronger and making plays on the defense's forward wall. "If everybody's doing their assignments and doing what they're supposed to do, I don't see why we couldn't win every one of these games."