It's often said that NFL teams win in January with the bottom of their roster. If that's true, then the Jets' 38-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills is a sign of things to come as the Green & White enter the playoffs next week.
With many starters sidelined either with injuries or just because the Jets had already locked up a playoff berth, some of the less-heralded members of head coach Rex Ryan's squad made huge contributions, beginning with running back Joe McKnight and his 198 all-purpose yards.
"The offensive line did great," McKnight said. "They gave me a lot of creases to run through. [Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer] called some great plays and they had very high confidence in me. I just wanted to go out there and do what I had to do and prove everybody wrong."
The rookie from Southern Cal had 158 yards on 32 carries, two catches for 15 yards and a 25-yard punt return, capping a long-awaited day. McKnight, who had the most rushing yards by a Jets rookie since Matt Snell in 1964, remembered a phone call from his mother about Ryan's criticism of him in the first episode of HBO's "Hard Knocks."
But after Sunday's big performance he's looking only ahead.
"That was just one game. I still have more to do," McKnight said. "But it felt good to just go out there and play ball and not have anything to worry about."
Backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene were among many starters who saw little or no action on Sunday, so the burden in the run game was placed squarely on the shoulders of the heavily worked McKnight but also on rookie fullback John Conner. The Kentucky product had eight carries for 44 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown run, as the Jets rushed 50 times for 276 yards.
"I hadn't played much during the regular season," Conner said. "Now just to get that opportunity to get some carries and a feel for the game a little bit more, I think it helps me out going into the playoffs. It gives me confidence."
That was the third time under Ryan's tenure that the Jets have rushed the ball over 50 times, with the other two coming last season against Oakland and Cincinnati. To make that happen, the offensive line needed to be stout. Playing without tackle Damien Woody (inactive) and C Nick Mangold and G Brandon Moore for almost the entire game, rookie guard Vladimir Ducasse saw a ton of action.
"It feels pretty great just to be a part of a win like that," Ducasse said, "especially rushing the ball and Joe having all those yards. I just went out there and there were a lot of younger guys playing, including myself, and we all contributed to this win. It just feels great and I'm excited."
It wasn't just the offense that excelled in the absence of some of the Green & White's top players. The defense forced the Bills into six turnovers, two of them interceptions by cornerback Marquice Cole. The Northwestern product benefitted from passes altered by Calvin Pace on a tip and Lance Laury on a hit, and took the first takeaway in for his first pro touchdown.
"I knew it was going to be a quick throw because we were in a blitz," Cole said of his first pick. "So I got my three-step read and he broke inside, and then the ball was tipped. So both of us were waiting on it, I gave him a little nudge and went up and got it. I knew as soon as I got the ball nobody was going to catch me."
Not only did Cole have a standout day by creating turnovers and making five tackles, equaling the team high, but converted safety Dwight Lowery made his third interception of the season and rookie cornerback Kyle Wilson had a pass deflection. In addition, cornerback Drew Coleman forced a fumble, his third in three games, and linebacker Jamaal Westerman recovered it.
After the game, Cole disclosed an attitude that was pervasive among the reserves on the Jets' defensive roster.
"You play and you expect to make plays," Cole said, "so when it happens, it's not a big deal to you. It's not like I never had an interception before. It's just part of the game — I go out there and that's what I try to do, so to be surprised about it would be ridiculous."
Heading into a wild-card playoff matchup on the road, it's important that players like Cole, Wilson and hard-hitting reserve safety Emanuel Cook feel confident moving forward. When the Jets take on the Indianapolis Colts and the dangerous Peyton Manning at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night, it will be imperative that their secondary plays to the highest of its ability.
"Everybody out here did what they were supposed to do," Wilson said. "We started things off the right way with this week of practice. Everybody was prepared and everybody is excited about the opportunity that we have in front of us and we just want to get rolling into the playoffs."