Today marks the latest stop in the Jets' Scenic America Must-Win Tour. The tour got off to a cacophonous start in the shadow of Seattle's Space Needle. The Jets played well for a while, but in a pivotal second quarter, the Seahawks made the key plays, the Jets made the mistakes, and the game devolved into a 28-7 loss.
This afternoon, it's the St. Louis Rams under the Gateway Arch. The tour thickens.
The trouble with long must-win stretches, of course, is that the earlier games aren't true must-wins. But every time you lose one of those games, the must-meter ratchets up a little higher, as does the pressure. Eventually, the true must-win game arrives, and if you can't win that, the tour ends with a thud, often before the season does.
Will the Jets let that happen to them this season?
They have put themselves on the MW circuit by falling to 3-6 with five losses in six games. As owner Woody Johnson framed it this past week: "I didn't sign up for 3-6." It's highly likely when he skipped over that record, that he didn't sign up for 3-7, either, so head coach Rex Ryan and his team see their situation clearly and starkly.
Yet as much as possible, with some confidence. It's funny what a little Tebow turmoil might do for a team.
Mark Sanchez was asked if the uproar caused over unnamed Jets players criticizing Tim Tebow's QB mechanics and Ryan's immediate reaction with his players and the media could actually unite the Jets in their time of need.
In Search of Some Six-Pointers
"Why not? I think guys were great about it today," the Jets' embattled starter said after Wednesday's practice. "Guys feel good about our chances this week, feel good about the rest of the season, and we're just trying to stay positive."
We've heard that before, but do Sanchez and his offense have something to give in this game? The Rams are 3-5-1 yet on the uptick, playing well in their Edward Jones Dome home and coming off their tie at San Francisco, and their defense, said the QB, is "just a nasty group." However, the D's yardage and point rankings are mostly middle of the pack or bottom half of the league.
That could be promising for the Jets' O, several of whose subunits have been out of sync lately. From the last series at New England to present, the offense's 25 drives break down this way: 1 TD, 1 FG, 1 blocked FG, 14 punts (9 3-and-outs, 1 blocked punt), 5 turnovers, 2 losses on downs, 1 end of half.
But Shonn Greene and the running attack had picked up some lately, at least before their space-needling. TE Dustin Keller is coming off one of his less impactful games and is due. WRs Jeremy Kerley, Stephen Hill and Clyde Gates have all had individually outstanding efforts. Tebow picked up more first downs vs. Seattle, three, than in any previous game out of the Wildcat.
It's time for the offense to make a positive contribution, if it wants to help the success of the tour.
On defense, the accent may be, of all unexpected things, on the Jets' pass rush. In the first five games, the Jets produced five sacks on 154 opponents' dropbacks, a weak rate of one sack every 30.8 dropbacks. In the last four games, it's been 11 sacks in 141 drops, a sack every 12.8 drops.
Did Ryan think that rate is sustainable?
"I do," the head coach said. "When we get a lead on somebody, that's when you can expect more of a pass rush. With that being said, you have to generate the pass rush, and I think our guys are doing a better job of that. We're giving them more favorable fronts do that, and our guys are converting better from run to pass than they were earlier."
Breaking the Ice with the Rush
DT Mike DeVito, coming off one of the best games of his career that included his second strip-sack (remember Tony Romo in the '11 opener?) agreed.
"The pass rush has been a point of emphasis all season, and I think we're starting to break the ice there," DeVito said, adding about Muhammad Wilkerson and Quinton Coples, "Mo and Q have been doing a great job and that frees up a lot of other guys to make plays."
Wilkerson had probably his best game as a pro — the fumble-return TD off DeVito's strip, a force of his own, 11 tackles, and a holding penalty drawn on Seattle G Paul McQuistan. Coples still has only his two sacks of the Colts' Andrew Luck but he put a good lick on QB Russell Wilson to force a third-down incompletion. Bart Scott also had a sack, David Harris and Bryan Thomas split another, and CB Ellis Lankster got two hits and one strip-sack on Wilson.
Needless to say, if the Jets' pressure is truly building, it should and must show up today. QB Sam Bradford, despite his decent season and former Jets OC Brian Schottenheimer's tutelage, has been sacked 25 times, once every 12.5 dropbacks, and the Rams have the NFL's 24th offense in yardage and 28th in points.
The specialists need to come along for this ride, too. Joe McKnight (ankle) is set to come back for kickoff-return duty, K Nick Folk and P Robert Malone will get to continue their solid seasons with three hours of indoor work, and Antonio Cromartie is champing at the bit to block a kick, any kick,
Add the Jets' health, which is as good as it's been in a while with NT Kenrick Ellis (knee) appearing ready to join McKnight back in the active ranks, and maybe the elements are there for the Green & White.
The urgency sure is.
"We're desperate for a win," Ryan said Friday. "Clearly, if you have goals, as any team would have goals, to make playoffs and all that stuff then we have no choice, we have to win. There's no tomorrow, we need to win."
Ready for the Tour to Turn
Technically, that's probably not true. But let's say it is. If the Jets can win six of seven, they could find themselves in the postseason talk at 9-7. Since 2002, 19 teams have made the playoff grid at 9-7 or worse, an average of almost one per conference per year.
But win six of seven? Who are we kidding? Well, probably the fans and media of '94 New England, '95 Detroit and '96 Jacksonville were saying the same thing when each of those teams opened their seasons 3-6. Those Pats won seven in row to finish 10-6, the Lions did the same, and the Jags snagged six of seven down the stretch to finish 9-7. All made the playoffs.
"Just go win a damn game, this whole thing turns," Sanchez said. "I'm telling you, it's contagious, this kind of stuff. You win a game, you remember what it's like, you feel good about a game, you really feel good about your prep. Go and have some fun, smile, complete some passes and move on."
The Jets need a whole lot of all of that on the rest of their tour — in the city of the Grand Ole Opry against the Titans, near the scenic splendor of the St. Johns River and Jacksonville's beaches and golf courses vs. the Jags, not far from Niagara Falls to take on the Bills. And needless to say they need to sustain it when they return home to repack their luggage and play the Patriots, Cardinals and Chargers.
It all starts — again — shortly after 12 noon CT (1 p.m. ET) near the majestic arch. The Jets once more will dig deep inside, look for lost things they've been searching for most of this fractured season, try to topple the Rams, and stride through the gateway toward the Pats on Thanksgiving night Just win a damn game.