Even before Jets head coach Rex Ryan sent Shaun Ellis home Friday due to illness, the Big Katt was not in the best of moods. Just one win away from a postseason performance, the longest-tenured Jet wouldn't allow himself to think about what going back to the playoffs would mean to him.
"I won't want to talk about it," said Ellis, who has appeared in six postseason contests since arriving as a rookie back in 2000. "We have to play the game. I don't want to jinx myself."
The game in question, of course, is tonight's primetime Jets-Bengals clash, which in all likelihood will be the final football battle ever contested at the current Meadowlands stadium. The 8-7 Jets will gain postseason entry for the first time in three seasons with a win over the AFC North champs that would set up a rematch next week in the Bengals' Cincinnati den.
A year after having seven players selected for the Pro Bowl in Hawaii, the Green & White will have three in Miami for the Pro Bowl next month (five players were named alternates). But the Super Bowl is also down in South Florida and the Jets want to be one of the six clubs fighting it out to represent the AFC in XLIV.
"For me, it's about winning. For me, the most important thing is this game coming up because we have the opportunity to get in the playoffs," said Thomas Jones, a Pro Bowler last season who has rushed for 1,324 yards and needs 12 more tonight to set a career high in his 10th season. "I haven't been to the playoffs in a couple of years. I think that feeling is so much more powerful than any individual accomplishment, being in the playoffs, being one of so few teams that have an opportunity to play for the Super Bowl."
Jones also needs just one rush TD to tie the franchise mark he established last season and the Jets' No. 1-ranked rush attack (2,499 yards) will become the most productive ground charge in club annals with 148 yards.
And Ryan's got his defense poised to lead the league in points allowed (15.7 points per game), total defense (263.7 yards per game) and pass D (163.3 ypg). Team MVP Darrelle Revis, a Defensive Player of the Year candidate who will be locked up with Chad Ochocinco probably for at least a few plays this evening, leads the NFL with 34 PDs and six interceptions.
But the only number that matters is one. The towels that almost 80 thousand Jets fans will wave wildly tonight read "Win and We're In!"
Opportunities abound in the National Football League, but this is a truly special occasion. That's why Ryan lined his troops on the sideline during Wednesday's practice and told the players who made the postseason once to walk ahead to the numbers. The coach then asked how many Jets had at least two trips and then three. The numbers dwindled significantly each time.
It was a powerful exercise for rookie quarterback Mark Sanchez.
"It was like 'Whoa!' If you don't understand how special this is, look at those guys. Look how long they've been playing. Some of the guys have made it twice in seven-year careers," said Sanchez. "Calvin Pace has never been to the playoffs. He's been playing for seven years. This isn't the week to be celebrating New Year's. This isn't that time. It's time to focus and play and win-and-in."
"It's basically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. That's really what it was," added Ellis. "A lot of players don't get to experience it and he basically wanted to point it out how good of an opportunity we have and it's up to us on Sunday."
Ellis has elected not to speak to his younger teammates about the playoffs. There is no manual to the postseason — it just has a different feel.
"It's something they have to experience. You never know what it's like until you get there and are a part of it. I've been in the first round, to the second round — close a couple of times," he said. "For me, it's not just trying to get in. There have been times I've been in and it's been one-and-done. We're not just trying to get in — we're trying to get in and go as far as we can and get to a Super Bowl. That's our goal."
So no matter how the Bengals approach this matchup, the Jets will only be apologetic if they lose.
"Obviously, we're excited about that opportunity. To do it in front of our fans, we think that's going to be a huge bonus," Ryan said. "I understand that there's going to be a butt in every seat and I hope they're all Jet fans and ready to go. Our fans are eager for this football team to make the playoffs. We're doing everything we can not to disappoint them."