The Jets looked like a lock to make the playoffs after five games. Not only were they 4-1, but they had the league’s best defense and the league’s best running game. Both of those went along with a quarterback in Ryan Fitzpatrick who was playing well, or at least well enough.
Then Fitzpatrick’s play tailed off, and the rest of the team failed to live up to expectations. So, the team found itself at 5-5 and looking up at the Steelers, Texans and Raiders for a playoff spot, with the Bills and Chiefs neck and neck with them and the Dolphins surging behind them.
All of a sudden “good Fitzpatrick” came roaring back, throwing for nearly 300 yards and four touchdowns in a 38-20 rout of the Dolphins, effectively ending Miami’s season and putting New York right on pace to compete for a Wild Card spot.
Now, “Good Fitzpatrick” has a chance to make a real run with this Jets team. Coming off the win against Miami, the Jets are one of five 6-5 teams, three of which would make the playoffs (the AFC South winner and two Wild Cards). Among that group, they hold the tiebreaker over the Colts head to head, but would lose out to Houston and haven’t played the Steelers or Chiefs, needing to rely on conference record to jump over them.
However, the next three games give them a great chance to put some separation between themselves and the other contenders in the AFC. Over the next three weeks, the Jets have to “hit the road” to face a reeling Giants team, then get an extremely soft Titans at home, followed by a trip to Dallas to face the Cowboys who are still winless without Tony Romo.
With merely above average play, the Jets should be able to find themselves sitting at 9-5 at the end of this run. Meanwhile, the Steelers and Texans both play the Colts over the next three. Pittsburgh also has tough games against the Bengals and Broncos, while Houston plays the Bills and Patriots. Even the Chiefs matchup against the Raiders, who are right behind the pack at 5-6 but hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Jets.
The point is that even if one or two of those teams can win their next three, they will be bumping other contenders out on the way there. For that reason, it is very important the Jets take care of business during this run before they have to face the Patriots and Bills in Weeks 16 and 17, respectively.
A big part of that depends on which Fitzpatrick shows up. In the Jets six wins, he has thrown 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions. In fact, he has thrown three multi-interception games, and those were all losses so far. He didn’t throw a pick in the loss to New England, but he was horrendous late in that game, particularly in the fourth quarter. As for the Raiders, he was injured and replaced by Geno Smith as the Jets got blown out without him.
Overall, in losses, Fitzpatrick has thrown seven touchdowns and seven interceptions. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are both way down in those splits, down eight percentage points and nearly two full yards shorter per pass attempt. He has even been sacked more—seven times in the five losses and four times in the six wins—and who knows if he would have taken even more sacks in the Raiders game when he only threw five passes.
Fitzpatrick has been a very different player from week to week this season, and the Jets have thrived or suffered accordingly. It is tough to put it all on him, considering he is a journeyman quarterback who needs weapons around him. Still, he had Brandon Marshall and Chris Ivory, who at times this season have played like the best receiver and running back Fitz has ever had.
With playmakers like those two and Eric Decker, as well as the ridiculous defense and stellar offensive line, it shouldn’t matter so much who the quarterback is or whether he plays well. The numbers were better in the first five games of the season before he got banged up, but it really was the ground-and-pound offense and swarming defense that defined winning for the Jets early on.
If anything, Fitzpatrick’s contributions to the team were a little overstated based on how well he was perceived to have been playing. He still turned the ball over too much and was hit or miss on his throws, including mostly misses from deep. He was doing just enough, and that was all that was being asked of him.
In order to roll off three straight, even against sub-par competition, the Jets will need more “good Fitzpatrick” than just good enough. The fans will want to see the turnovers cut down and the extra sacks eliminated. Most of all, they need to see the entire team be lifted up and rise to their early-season levels.
Unfortunately, there is a lot to wonder about on those other fronts. The defense has suffered without Calvin Pryor, and although he was back against Miami, they have still been without Darrelle Revis. The concussion kept him out the last six-plus quarters, but he is expected to make a recovery in time for the Giants’ game this week. However, there were already some questioning his ability when we last saw him healthy going into the game against Houston, and he struggled early on before the head injury.
Even more important is the health of Nick Mangold and the ability of the offensive line to protects Fitzpatrick and run the football. The same way Fitzpatrick’s splits look much worse in losses, the running game has suffered equally or more. Part of that comes from the quarterback, but it is impossible to overstate how difficult losing Mangold has been for Gang Green.
All the phases of the game need to come together for the Jets to make a playoff run. They aren’t going anywhere anyway if they can’t impose their will on the game with stout defense and a commitment to the ground game. Those aspects need to return to see the Jets be the powerhouse some mistook them for through five games early on.
In the meantime, Fitzpatrick has to be good the next three weeks to buy them time, and at least give them a shot at the postseason. If they can get to 9-5 with all the craziness happening in the AFC, they will be in pole position for one of the Wild Card spots, even with two tougher matchups to finish the season. They don’t need to go 3-0 in the next three or 4-1 overall to guarantee a playoff spot, but in a competitive conference, banking as many wins as possible will give them some breathing room against their division rivals, especially a Bills team with playoff aspirations of their own.