RUTHERFORD, N.J. – It seems far too distant to take into account, the idea that this New York Jets team was only a field goal from an AFC championship game appearance. Or that plenty of pieces from that 2004 playoff team still remain – guys like quarterback Chad Pennington, linebackers Jonathan Vilma and Eric Barton, and defensive end Shaun Ellis.
So much has changed, yet just enough has remained the same. And for that reason alone, you can't just write this team off as the AFC's playoff runt.
At least, that's how the Jets would like it to be portrayed. They tell you this isn't just an average team that has taken advantage of a marginal schedule. They insist that despite some healthy roster turnover, this 10-6 version is actually closer to the playoff team of two years ago – not the 4-12 donkey of 2005 – and that rookie head coach Eric Mangini simply has gotten the pieces pointed in the right direction again … toward the Super Bowl, and not just the postseason.
OK, the Super Bowl may be a stretch, but a win for the fifth-seeded Jets against the Patriots next Sunday isn't out of the question.
"There are a lot of guys on this team with playoff experience, so who knows?" Vilma said after Sunday's playoff-clinching 23-3 win over the Oakland Raiders. "Who's to say what this team can do? We've always known this was a talented team despite how it was [portrayed] before the season. We just needed to take hold of that belief and move on it. We've done that. Now what happens in the next step is up to us."
Whatever that is it's going to have to happen on the road, a place where the Jets went 6-2 this season. The record could have been 7-1 had it not been for a blown call which reversed a late touchdown by Jets tight end Chris Baker in a loss to Cleveland on Oct. 29. Critics will point to that mark and say it was amassed against mediocre teams, albeit in some tough environments like Miami and Buffalo. But there's no erasing the emotional Nov. 12 win at New England, or the fact that while the Jets have gone 1-3 against playoff teams this season, they haven't exactly embarrassed themselves in those losses.
"We have confidence in ourselves that we can play in hostile environments, but the one thing on the road is that the presence is different," Pennington said. "Different challenges and different adversities arise that you may not have faced before. I don't know what that's going to be. None of us do. The question is: How do we respond to that adversity when it strikes? Do we smile at it, or do we shy away from it?"
In addition to the loss at Cleveland, New York's only other road loss was an embarrassing 41-0 defeat to Jacksonville on Oct. 8. The Jets didn't fare quite so well against playoff teams, splitting with the Patriots, dropping a wild 31-28 loss to Indianapolis and suffering an embarrassingly ineffective 10-0 shutout to the Bears. But all of those games went into the fourth quarter with the outcome in doubt and New York having opportunities to win. In truth, there are plenty of playoff-winning elements on the register: a defense that has both speed and flexibility, a coaching staff that has postseason experience and a quality kicker.
And without a doubt, Mangini has the most invaluable asset: experience at the quarterback spot. While Pennington has struggled with consistency this season, he has also shown the ability to rally the offense and make the key plays it takes to win when his offensive line protects him and his wide receivers don't abandon him.
"I've recognized that as Chad goes, our team goes," guard Pete Kendall said. "But I have also realized there are a lot of extenuating circumstances as to how well the quarterback plays – how well the offensive line protects him, how well the receivers catch the ball and how the running game is doing. There have been some bumps in the road for all of us, not just Chad."
Ultimately, it's Pennington's experience and the chemistry with his wideout tandem of Laveranues Coles and Jerricho Cotchery that makes the Jets dangerous. While the defense has the talent to keep the Jets competitive – and the commitment to the running game to keep the tempo in check – this is an AFC field that is going to require a healthy scoring offense to win games. The Jets have the potential to be just that, if Coles isn't dropping passes and Cotchery and versatile rookie running back Leon Washington become bigger parts of the offense.
That skill-position talent, along with the continuity tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson and center Nick Mangold have given the offensive line, has helped fill the gaps left behind by injured running back Curtis Martin. What once was a run-first team has become a more well-rounded, controlled unit despite the lack of star power.
"That was overstated," Kendall said, "that whole thing about the lack of talent we had."
Clearly there has been more potential than anyone realized in the preseason. When healthy, Coles and Cotchery have been one of the most potent 1-2 punches in the league. And Mangini has done just enough juggling at the running back spot, either going with the hot hand or playing guys like Washington and Cedric Houston to their strengths, with a dash of Brad Smith on reverses.
And if this team is to advance in the playoffs, it's that kind of versatility that will pay dividends. Beyond Baltimore and San Diego, there isn't another team in the AFC playoff mix that hasn't looked consistently vulnerable in some way during the second half of the season. The Colts can't stop the run. The Chiefs are too reliant on the run. New England is inconsistent with its passing attack. Even the Chargers and Ravens have been lured into track meets this season, particularly when they have been forced into man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
"Whoever we meet in the playoffs, it's going to be a challenge for us offensively," Coles said. "But that's not something we're worried about. We worked hard to get here. Coach Mangini has done everything to keep us motivated and moving forward. Whether people think we can win a game [in the playoffs], we're going to have to prove it. Just like the rest of this season."