The Jets have left themselves little to no margin for error when they tackle the Jaguars on Thursday Night Football. And if head coach Robert Saleh knows what's flipped the script for his team from their early burst from the gate to their recent slump, he wasn't getting too specific early this week.
"The good news is that we're in these games and putting ourselves in position to win," Saleh said. "We've got to go back and find a way to recapture what we were doing in the first half of the season over the next stretch of games and hopefully extend it. ... Quick turnaround but we've got to find a way to finish in the fourth quarter.
"It all starts with Jacksonville."
Here's a pre-primetime peek at some themes that the Jets will explore against the Jags on their first and possibly only night game this season (although the NFL could flex their regular-season finale at Miami).
Seeking a Run-Game Remedy
A bump up in the Jets' run game will help Zach Wilson, getting his second start after his three-game rest, find his receivers, as he did vs. Detroit with 317 passing yards and seven 20-yards-plus connections, the most by a Jets QB since Sam Darnold had seven 20-pluses vs. Oakland in 2019. That pass-catching group should include Corey Davis, back from one game away in the concussion protocol, and Tyler Conklin and C.J. Uzomah, who have combined for two two-TD games, the first time the TE position has done that since Dustin Keller in 2011.
But the rushing attack was ground down against the Lions' 26th-ranked run defense, gaining 50 yards at 2.3 yards/carry with no run longer than 6 yards. The average was the Jets' lowest since they had 1.8 yards/carry at New England in 2019. The backfield, which took a hit with Breece Hall's season-ending injury in Game 7, may be constricted vs. the Jaguars by Bam Knight's ankle, although Saleh said "his arrow's pointing up" for being able to play. As for the offensive line's blocking, the coach had a simple observation: "It's got to be better ... we've got to be better."
Beasts of a Feather
Funny how the beastly foes, Lions and Jaguars, coming to MetLife Stadium for the Jets' final two home games of the year share some superficial team similarities. Both had top-10 offenses in several categories but also had bottom-10 defenses especially in total yards and net passing yards allowed. Can the Jets take even greater advantage of passing game opportunities on offense against the Jags?
And what of Trevor Lawrence, the Jacksonville QB ranked incredibly close to Detroit's Jared Goff in a number of passing categories? In the past three games, the Jets' third-ranked defense, despite its late 51-yard misstep against the Lions, has held top-10 QBs Kirk Cousins, Josh Allen and Goff below their season passing yards/game and passer rating numbers. Can the Green & White do it again, this time possibly with DL Quinnen Williams back from his calf injury and without the "explosive" hiccup and get a few takeaways as well against another top-10 QB in Lawrence?
No one could beat up Greg Zuerlein more than Zuerlein did after he missed a 58-yard field goal as time expired vs. Detroit, preventing the Jets from getting to overtime: "I should've made the kick, no matter the distance.". But Zuerlein remains in the top 10 of longball strikers in the game today, as his kicks of 57, 57 and 60 yards for the Jets suggest. And the veteran should bounce back for another big kick or two that could be needed to decide Thursday's game.
But fans are a little more demonstrative about returns. Braden Mann and the Jets' cover team have yielded two punt-return TDs in a five-game span and their 12.1 yards/return allowed has slipped to 31st. And Braxton Berrios hasn't yet matched his dynamic 2021 Pro Bowl season, during which he sped for a 102-yard kickoff-return TD against Jacksonville. But Berrios is still working hard and producing, and he, Justin Hardee and the return team will be looking to open the gates for another big KO return or a long runback for the NFL's sixth-ranked punt returner with an 11.9-yard average.
See images of the Jets leading up to Thursday Night Football against the Jaguars.
The Long and Short View
History doesn't mean nearly as much as current events, but the Jets have fared well recently against the Jaguars. They've won five of the last seven in the series and four straight at home, both streaks since 2011. The 1998 AFC Divisional Round Game, their first home playoff game in a dozen years, resulted in a 34-24 win over the Jags. Last year's meeting, also at MetLife, also in Week 16, produced one of Wilson's crispest pass/rush games as a pro, as well as 118 rush yards for then-rookie RB Michael Carter in the 26-21 win.
More important is that the Jets do an Austin Powers and find their lost mojo, baby. As Saleh alluded to, the Jets had it all going for them before their bye — timely offense, a violent, smothering defense and fourth-quarter magic, all leading to a 6-3 record. After the bye, not so much and a 1-4 mark. But the injuries won't hurt nearly as much and any depression will lift if the Green & White truly put Buffalo, Minnesota and most recently Detroit in their rearview mirror and perform a winning show for a national football audience. Their postseason plans depend on it.