The Jets defense has been regarded as one of the best in the league statistically for most of the season. But the D hadn't been able to slam the door on several opponents, losing three contests they led going in to the fourth quarter, at Miami and home for Jacksonville and Atlanta.
And then there's the 16-13 overtime home loss to Buffalo.
"To be a great defense you have to be able to close those games out," linebacker Calvin Pace told reporters Monday. "It doesn't look good if you have a defensive-minded coach where the defense is supposed to be the backbone and you lose a game in the last couple of minutes. The defense just had to step it up and find a way to get off the field and close games."
The Jets never gave Cincinnati that chance. With the 37-0 win over the Bengals Sunday, the defense was able to show that relentlessness.
"We came out strong. We didn't leave any doubt," said Pace, who had one of the three sacks against the Stripes. "It's good to see it all come together. I came out of the tunnel and I looked up and said, 'Man, this is what you play for.' The fans were out with their towels waving. It was the best game I've ever played in."
The No. 1 defensive unit in the NFL allowed only 72 total yards and kept playing hard until the final whistle. It's hard enough to get one shutout in the league, and the Jets have nearly had three, including the 38-0 win over Oakland and the 26-3 victory over the Buccaneers that was a shutout until the Bucs hit a field goal late in the third quarter.
LB Bart Scott already apologized for the unnecessary-roughness penalty that put the Bucs in Jets territory on that field goal drive. And the team forgave him, considering he's a big reason they are where they are now. Pace said since the "Madbacker" had people over for Thanksgiving, they've been a much closer group.
"We've been getting together on Monday nights for the past five weeks," he said. "We've been going over to Bart's house or guys come over to my house and watch Monday Night Football. We sit around, talk junk, laugh, joke. It's nice camaraderie. We just have a good time."
The Jets defenders came out of the 31-14 loss to the Patriots in Week 11 down and dejected after giving up 410 yards.
"When things were bad we had to come together," said No. 97. "A lot of guys said it was not over and we need to keep fighting."
After Thanksgiving they defeated Carolina at home, 17-6, allowing 179 yards to jump from fifth in the defensive yardage rankings to second. They've given up 182.2 yards per game over the last six games and had the top defense for the past four weeks to nail down their first final-season No. 1 defensive ranking since 1979.
"It's a small thing, it's really nothing, but I think we've had the time to talk about football, talk life, whatever you have on your mind," Pace said. "It really did bring guys' focus together."
With things clicking on all cylinders on defense and with a dominating run game, the Green & White have the right formula for success in January.
"You can throw everything out that happened in the regular season," said Pace. "If we come out and lay an egg in the first week, then I guess the No. 1 defense doesn't really matter. We kind of have to start over and build up our brand again and let people know that we do have a good defense."
The run game set a franchise record in the regular season with 2,756 rushing yards and has enabled the offense to dominate time of possession. In the victory over the Bengals they had 41:14 in possession time, and they've had the ball longer than all opponents in the past six games, averaging 34:33 minutes per game in that span.
"I said all year I think our best defense is our run game," said Pace. "The more they're out there pounding those guys on the opposing defense, we can get out there for three-and-out and get the ball back to them. I think that's a perfect defense.
"Nobody wants to be on the field all day with Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson. I'd love to sit on the sideline and watch Thomas, Shonn and Brad run the ball down the field all day. That's our best defense."
Although they came out with the right game plan to decisively defeat the Bengals in Week 17, Pace expects the Stripes to come out with more effort on their home turf for their wild-card matchup.
"They are one of the most physical teams we've played with — a big O-line, four capable running backs. It's going to be tough, it really is," Pace said. "I think when we play them on Saturday it's going to be a much more physical game. It's going to be smashmouth."