Last Sunday morning's pregame sermon on the Jets-Arizona game focused on the challenge in front of the Jets defense. The D certainly rose to that occasion with its most dominating game of the season, no doubt at the expense of a Cardinals offense down on its luck.
The same could be stated for this morning ahead of the Jets-Jaguars game at EverBank Field in Jacksonville. Last week the Cards' offense was ranked 31st overall and the Jets knocked them back to 32nd and last, ahead of ... the Jaguars, who are now 31st and could leapfrog backwards over the Cards if that same Jets defense shows up again.
The Jags run offense is 32nd and, with Maurice Jones-Drew and Rashad Jennings out for the game, Montell Owens could be their featured back, and he has all of 21 carries in his seven-year career.
Chad Henne has taken over the QB controls and he has more experience than Arizona's beleaguered Ryan Lindley and in fact prevailed in three of his four starts for the Dolphins against the Jets.
On the other hand, Henne's last outing vs. the Green & White in 2010 was a win in spite of a horrid passer line (5-for-18, 55 yards, five sacks). And in his current incarnation as a Jaguar, he's 1-1 as a starter and 0-2 in relief and his averages of 4.6 plays and 23.2 yards per drive are the lowest among the 36 NFL QBs with at least 50 drives.
Oh, and did we mention that WR Cecil Shorts, Jacksonville's most dangerous receiver, is also out, with a concussion?
How Sanchez Is Approaching Today
But enough about the Jags offense. The Jets D may not be able to dominate today on the road as they did last week at home, but they'll need a kindred effort to help the Jets climb one more step closer to 9-7 with their sixth win of the season. But they can't do it alone. An equal if not greater storyline for Jets fans this afternoon will be how the team's quarterbacks perform
In truth that really may come down to how one of the three QBs performs, and that is, of course, Mark Sanchez. Head coach Rex Ryan named Sanchez as his starter for this game, which is not unusual since Ryan will be starting No. 6 for the 66th time in their 67 games since they arrived together in the 2009 season, with the only non-start due to a knee injury as a rookie.
But also of course, this start is different because it comes after the first game in which Ryan had ever benched Sanchez during a game. The coach was asked on Friday what made him so sure his chosen quarterback would respond to today's call?
"He's pulled himself up before in situations," Ryan said. "I think it's his competitiveness, and he understands you just have to go out and play the position and do it to the best of your ability, believe in your teammates and I think that's it. Protect the football, that's all we're asking him to do. Play the position, do what you do, but protect the football."
"It's my job to play the way I know how," Sanchez said. "These last couple of weeks, and certain stretches of this season, I haven't. It kind of culminated there on Sunday, and hopefully that's the end of it. I think it is. That's the way I'll approach this next one."
Is it as simple as not giving the ball up personally at the QB position, by interception, strip-sack, aborted play, etc.? It may be. Consider that in his 65 previous starts, when Sanchez has more touchdown drives than personal giveaways in a game, his record is 31-8.
But when he has the same number of TD drives or fewer than his personal GAs, his record is 4-21, not including last week's no-decision. On the road, that mark is even starker at 1-9.
Tebow Back in the 'Ville
Ryan acknowledged that, for the first time since the NFL did away with the third-QB designation for the 2011 season, he will dress three QBs. And it's conceivable that both backups, Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy, could be active and could play in this game in North Florida. It's also conceivable that if Sanchez plays as well as he and his coach anticipate him playing, neither will play.
If Tebow sits, the reason will likely be due to the state of his fractured ribs. That would be a shame, since Tim Terrific has been a living legend in his hometown of Jacksonville since his high school and college days, and in fact was pursued by the Jaguars this past offseason, only to have the Jets get the green light to make the trade with the Broncos to bring him to the New York area.
"I try not to wonder about the what-ifs, because if you do that, I think you're not enjoying the moment or you're not focused on the moment," Tebow said in the past week. "I don't want to live my life thinking about the what-ifs. I'm very blessed and thankful for where I am and what I've been able to do.
"I would've loved to play for both organizations, but I'm a Jet, I'm glad I'm a Jet, and I'm looking forward to this game and going back home."
Sitting No. 15 is one option. Another is to return to the pre-ribs situation where Tebow handles a number of Wildcat plays behind Sanchez. Ryan has said Tebow has been cleared the past two weeks to play, but it seems likely that if Tebow plays, it will be in his limited, special role in the shotgun, not in any longer stint to replace Sanchez for any reason.
McElroy's Motto: Be Prepared
If such a situation were to arise, well, McElroy has already shown he's up to that task by playing the final 19½ minutes of the Arizona game, directing two very productive drives, producing the Jets' only points, and rescuing the 7-6 win in his pro debut.
"We did some good things on Sunday, and we were able to do enough for a win," McElroy said about his return to the No. 3 role during the week of practice. "But we understand that roles are never set in stone, they can change day to day, and just whatever your role may be, embrace it and try to do whatever you possibly can to help the team."
The way G-Mac embraced and executed his role against the Cards didn't surprise Ryan but it reinforced what he said he's felt about his second-year man if he turns to him again.
"I think it's a great example to the rest of the guys that you never know when your number's going to be called," Ryan said. "And we talk to our whole team about every single player on our roster or even the practice squad: You're going to be needed at one point or another. It happens almost every single season.
"But he was prepared. And when he went in, he made the most of it, did a tremendous job. I think he gained the respect probably from his teammates more than anything, but it was not a surprise to me that he would go in and be able to perform. I see it on his preparation off the field. I see how dialed in he is."
Down the Stretch
The shame of this QB juggling would be if the Sanchez-Tebow-McElroy Three Musketeers deal were to work out swimmingly in this final quarter of the season, and yet may amount to going home once the playoffs begin just the same. The Jets could well finish at 9-7 with four more wins — against the weakest strength of schedule in the NFL over the last four weeks — and yet today they're at least two games behind three teams, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Indianapolis.
"My rookie year was pretty similar," Sanchez said, comparing his personal and team struggles then to man and team today. "Those last four games were kind of make-or-break and we lost that Atlanta game. I threw three picks right after I came back from being hurt for a week. That's never a fun deal coming back that next week.
"Sunday can't come fast enough. I can't wait to get down to Jacksonville and play my best.