It's Happy New Year in the NFL on Sunday, but the happier start to 2023 for two teams going at each other in the Pacific Northwest will go to the side that prevails to keep its '22 postseason hopes alive.
The Jets and Seattle are both 7-8, both in slumps, both eager to bust out with two season-ending wins, both still in the playoff pictures in their conferences.
The Jets, playing on Jan. 1 for only the fourth time in their history (home wins vs. Buffalo in '05 and '16, one loss at Miami in '11) are hoping to reverse some of their downward trends — in the passing game as Mike White returns under center from his rib injury, on the offensive line, in the running attack, in defensive takeaways — all of which has led to four consecutive losses against playoff contenders.
But the Seahawks and QB Geno Smith, playing crisper than he did in his four Jets seasons, have lost three in a row, (during which they've held no leads or ties) and five of their last six. Their last three home games were losses, to Las Vegas, Carolina and San Francisco.
What will be a difference-maker in this interconference battle for survival? Here are four areas that could be decisive:
The first-year players coming together not far off Puget Sound at the stadium formerly known as Qwest and CenturyLink and now Lumen Field could give this game the feel of a Pro Bowl Games preview.
For the Jets, CB Sauce Gardner still leads the NFL with his 16 pass defenses but would like a few more, plus a few more than his two picks, to finish his introduction to the league. WR Garrett Wilson is the Jets' leading pass-catcher with 71 receptions, has exactly 1,000 scrimmage yards and needs exactly 1 yard to pass John Riggins' 1,000 in 1971 and become the rookie with the third-most YFS in franchise history.
But the Seahawks also come at opponents with youth on O and D. Defensively, Tariq Woolen leads the NFL with eight takeaways (six on INTs) and will bring his skills to bear on Wilson on more than a few snaps. Woolen also had an early blocked field goal that produced the first BFGR touchdown since 2019. In the offensive backfield, Kenneth Walker leads Seattle in rushing and the league with nine rushing TDs.
Who'll Stop the Run?
As interesting as the QB matchup of Mike White vs. Geno Smith will be, each will benefit greatly from a muscular running game to set up play-action and get eighth and ninth bodies out of the box. For Jets RBs Bam Knight and Michael Carter, who struggled behind their struggling O-line the past two games, the Seahawks could — could — provide a Northwest Passage. The 'Hawks' last three home opponents, the Raiders, Panthers and Niners, averaged 225 rushing yards/game and 5.6 yards/carry — musical numbers to the ears of OC Mike LaFleur and the Green & White runners.
But while the Jets defense has been at times impenetrable (third in total yards, fifth in net passing yards in the NFL), had its own difficulties stopping the run at home the past two games, yielding 5.4 yards/carry to the Lions and 147 yards at 5.1 per tote in the rain to the Jaguars. Seattle, with the rookie runner Walker leading the way, is ninth in yards/carry.
"The expectations have gotten higher for the defense," head coach Robert Saleh said this week, and Seattle is a bright stage on which to prove it.
On the surface, takeaways slightly favor Seattle. The Seahawks have a zero turnover margin on the season, the Jets a minus-4. At home the 'Hawks are plus-1, on the road the Jets are at zero. But some small indicators say the turnover battle is even closer than that. The Seahawks are tied for fifth-most giveaways in the NFL at 21, and they are the only team to have had at least one giveaway in every game. The Jets finally ended their TO drought vs. the Jaguars with Quinnen Williams' strip and Carl Lawson's recover, and their secondary is salivating for a pick after going four games without one.
And the return of Lamarcus Joyner will give the Jets a lift. "We're hopeful for Joyner," Saleh said of his starting safety who sat the past two games with a hip problem. Despite the time off, Joyner still leads the Green & White with four takeaways, all coming in the first seven games. Smith hasn't been a TO machine but he's lost the ball 13 times this season, tied with Tom Brady for eighth-most among QBs.
Specialists First Class
Special teams are always worth a consideration in pitched battles like these. And it seems unlikely to be a big return day for either returner, Braxton Berrios or DeeJay Dallas, due to the coverage work led by the Jets' Justin Hardee and the Seahawks' Nick Bellore. Yes, Bellore, who broke in with the Jets in 2011, is still getting it done on specials with 12 tackles. Hardee, the Jets' current ST leader, also has a dozen tackles and both are tied for 10th-most in the NFL.
On the kicking front, the Jets have 17 field goals of 55-plus yards in their history, and eight were executed by Sunday's two kickers. Seattle's Jason Myers had his long-distance run of five 55-plus FGs in his lone Jets season of 2018 and is 6-for-6 from 50-plus this season. Meanwhile, Greg Zuerlein this year has kicked three of the four longest FGs in Jets history. True, Z missed the 58-yarder to tie vs. Detroit, but it's just a feeling that with time running out, the kicker who gets off the last monster try from his side of midfield will put it down the middle for OT or the win.